By STEPHEN HAWKINS
AP Sports Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Kyle Larson was willing to play it smart in the closing laps at Texas. He also had a fast car that stayed in front through all of the restarts to secure the first of the four championship-contending spots in NASCAR’s season finale.
Larson led 256 of 334 laps at the 1 1/2-mile track and got his eighth win this season. He led the final 218 laps, staying in front through seven restarts in the final stage that included three late after incidents involving playoff contenders Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
“Even if I didn’t come out with the lead or the win or whatever, I wanted to play it smart and take what I could get,” Larson said. “But I got good shoves from behind every restart, and it allowed me to get clear into the lead into (Turn) 1 and do some blocking for a few laps. … We had a great race car to allow me to be aggressive with the blocks, and fast too.”
Already with a significant points lead, after closing out the second elimination round a week earlier with a win on the road course at Charlotte, the opening race in the round of eight provided the first chance to get into the championship four Nov. 7 in Phoenix
There were two laps remaining on the final restart, and with a push from playoff contender Brad Keselowski, Larson was able to stay out in front of teammate William Byron.
“Kyle really deserves it, they’ve been awesome all year, flawless on pit road and they do everything right,” Byron said.
The seven remaining playoff contenders leave Texas with two more chances to advance for a title shot, with Kansas and Martinsville left before the finale. Texas had always been the eighth of the final 10 races, and the middle race of the third and final elimination round, before this season.
Ryan Blaney, Hamlin and Kyle Busch are above the cutline going to Kansas, where Busch won earlier this year. Defending Cup champion Chase Elliott is fifth, ahead of Keselowski, Truex and Logano.
Larson’s first appearance in NASCAR’s championship four comes in the same season that Rick Hendrick gave him an opportunity to get back into the Cup Series. He also won at Texas in the $1 million, non-points All-Star race in June.
The 29-year-old Larson, who made his Cup debut in 2013, also won in his previous All-Star race, in 2019 with Chip Ganassi Racing. But he missed the big-money exhibition last year and the rest of that season while suspended for using a racial slur during a livestream while in a virtual race when NASCAR was on pause during the pandemic. That cost him nearly every sponsor, his seat with Ganassi and nearly his career before Hendrick signed him before this season.
“We’re going to race for a championship. This is crazy,” Larson said.
Keselowski’s fourth-place finish was the best among the other playoff drivers, with Blaney, Elliott and Busch finishing sixth through eighth.
“Well, we didn’t need all those yellows,” Keselowski said. “We needed the long runs to be able to keep them honest. We had long-run speed, but the 5 and 24 were just blistering fast on the restart and drove away from me. I just wanted some laps to let their stuff wear down.”
Hamlin was on the outside of a three-wide situation with 20 laps remaining when Blaney made contact with the No. 11 Toyota. The tire rub eventually blew, and sent Hamlin into a spin, though he was able to get to pit road and stay on the lead lap. Hamlin had more contact later that damaged his splitter and finished 11th.
“We just didn’t have a fast enough car, I thought we were probably fifth at best, honestly, and then two wrecks at the end,” Hamlin said. “This car is destroyed.”
Truex was later done after contact with Daniel Suarez that sent him hard into the wall.
Logano, who was already eighth in points, was the first of the playoff drivers out at Texas, when his engine blew with 34 laps to go.
“Now we know what we have to do the next two weeks … we’ve got to go find a way to win,” said Logano, 43 points under the cutline.
Busch was the only playoff contender in the vicinity of a huge backstretch crash only 31 laps into the race, though he took only some minimal contact on the back of the No. 18 Toyota when scooting through the melee. He was back in the field after serving a penalty for speeding on pit road during the competition caution. He took more new tires as a precaution, then went on to win the first stage.
“I mean we probably missed four or five points there at the end of the day, but we missed four or five points at the stage as well too. So that’s what we missed out on,” Busch said. “Certainly the 5 and the 24 were the class of the field again. You know, we’re just slow.”
A BIG ONE IN TEXAS
Bubba Wallace was in the middle while three-wide going onto the backstretch when he got loose and went sideways, triggering that early big crash. NASCAR listed 12 cars being involved, not including Busch, on a the restart from the competition caution. The 12 cars were among the most ever involved in a single incident at Texas, which hosted its 41st Cup race since the 1997 debut with a 13-car crash at the start of the race.
The middle race in the round of eight at Kansas, where Logano was the winner last October when that was the opener in the round of eight. Eight of the last nine Kansas races have been won by one of remaining playoff contenders, with six of those drivers combining for those wins.
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