KANSAS CITY, Kan. – If you thought Kyle Larson was going to slow down after locking himself into the NASCAR Cup Series championship race at Phoenix Raceway with a victory last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, think again.
Larson powered to his ninth victory of the season during Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, which fell on the 17th anniversary of the plane crash that claimed the life of team owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky Hendrick, as well as seven other people.
“I want to dedicate this win to Rick and Linda (Hendrick),” Larson said. “I didn’t ever get to meet Ricky (Hendrick) or the other men and women who lost their lives that day, but I felt the importance of this race, no doubt. It’s crazy how it kind of all worked out there for me to win.”
The driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was again the man to beat Sunday afternoon, though he had significant competition from fellow Hendrick Motorsports drivers William Byron and Chase Elliott throughout the day.
Byron seemingly had the fastest car during the middle of the race, which allowed him to win the second stage. Byron was the leader with 50 laps left when Ryan Newman spun coming out of turn two, which set up a round of pit stops.
Byron exited the pits with the race lead, but was forced to return to the pits to tighten loose lug nuts on his No. 24 Chevrolet. That handed the lead to Kurt Busch, who quickly gave up the race lead to Elliott during the restart with 45 laps left after Elliott took Busch and Kevin Harvick three-wide.
One lap after the restart disaster struck for playoff driver Ryan Blaney, who was clipped by Austin Dillon in turn two and slammed into the outside wall. The damage ended Blaney’s day, dropping him to 37th in the final rundown.
Elliott would lead Larson, Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. back to the green flag with 39 laps left. A big push from Busch allowed Larson to roar past Elliott to take the lead on the top. Elliott faded a few positions at the time of the restart, allowing Harvick to settle into second.
Despite losing the lead on the restart and dropping back a few positions, Elliott wasn’t done and quickly went about making up the positions he’d lost. With 14 laps left he was able to drive back around Harvick to move into second before setting off in pursuit of Larson.
Elliott was able to get within a second of Larson within a few laps, but he bounced his car off the wall multiple times and was unable to get within striking distance to challenge Larson for the lead.
That allowed Larson to ease to the victory, the 15th of his NASCAR Cup Series career. It was also his third-straight victory, marking the second time this season Larson has won three consecutive races. The last time a driver won three-straight races twice during a single season was 1987 when Dale Earnhardt accomplished the feat.
“I had a couple of good restarts that worked out for me. The No. 4 (Harvick) got to the No. 9’s (Elliott) inside at the flag stand and kind of choked that lane up and got me clear to the lead,” Larson said about the final restart.H”ad to do some blocking there and Chase was really fast at the end. So, I’m glad I didn’t have to fight him too much.”
Elliott said the late contact with the wall ended any chance he had of running down Larson.
“I didn’t really have a choice. Once I hit it (the wall) it hurt it pretty bad,” Elliott said. “Really proud of the effort. Our NAPA team did a great job today. Felt like we had something for Kyle, just got the wall off of (turn) two.
“These are the kind of runs you have to have to compete for a championship,” Elliott continued. “A good time to be doing that.”
Harvick finished third, followed by Busch and Denny Hamlin.
With one race left before the championship race at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7, Larson is the only driver guaranteed to race for the NASCAR Cup Series title. Elliott sits 34 points above the cutoff line as the series heads to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway next weekend, with Hamlin 32 points above the cutoff.
Things get much tighter from there, with Kyle Busch sitting one point to the good after hitting the wall multiple times Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Blaney is one point below the cutoff after his bad luck late in Sunday’s race.
Truex sits three points below the cutoff, with Brad Keselowski six points back. Joey Logano is 26 points behind and will likely need to win at Martinsville if he hopes to race for his second Cup Series title.