MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Two weeks after he was eliminated from the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, and one week after he was crashed out at Las Vegas by Bubba Wallace, Kyle Larson took his frustrations out on the field Sunday at Homestead, Florida.
It was sweet redemption for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion, who whipped the field into submission, leading 199 of the 267-lap race to score his third win of the 2022 season and the 19th Cup Series victory of his career.
His victory also creates two more interesting scenarios.
Larson was eliminated from advancing into the Round of Eight because he brushed a concrete wall late in the race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on October 9, breaking a toe link on his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Larson appeared safely in the field for the Round of Eight, but the broken toe link combined with Christopher Bell’s win created a perfect storm that eliminated Larson.
By winning Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it means this Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway will have at least two drivers advance into the Championship Four through points instead of victories.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano is the only driver locked into the Championship race at Phoenix International Raceway on November 6 from his victory at Las Vegas on October 16.
If Logano wins Sunday’s race at Martinsville, then three drivers will have to race their way into the Championship race through points.
Currently, Ross Chastain of Trackhouse Racing appears to be in good shape based on his points and assuming he doesn’t encounter adversity at Martinsville. He is five points behind Logano after he finished second to Larson on Sunday.
That puts Chastain 19 points above the cutoff line entering the final race before the Championship.
It’s uncharted territory for Chastain and the team.
“I’ve never been here,” Chastain said of being so close to contending for a championship. “For Trackhouse, we’re learning all this together; we’re experiencing this together.
“We’ve got a lot of knowledge in our shop, and I’ll lean on a lot of teammates, both in the GM camp and inside our shop of how to approach it. But I’m a racer. We’re just going to race. Go practice as well as we can; we’ll go qualify as best we can. And I’m late all the time, so a grandfather clock might do me a little good for the rest of my life.”
The second intriguing scenario is for the first time since 1963, the Cup Series may have a driver’s champion from one team and an owner’s champion from another.
With his win in Sunday’s race, Larson’s No. 5 team at Hendrick Motorsports is locked into the four entrants that can win the owner’s championship at Phoenix.
According to some research from Nate Ryan at NBCSports.com, in 1963 Joe Weatherly won the driver’s championship scoring points for nine different teams, and the Wood Brother Racing team won the owner’s title.
In 1954, Lee Petty won the driver title with two different teams and Herb Thomas won the owner’s championship.
There have been split championships in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in recent years, but it has been 59 years since that has happened in NASCAR’s top division.
The reason the owner’s championship is so important is that is what the prize fund distribution is based on, as well as garage location and pit road selection for the following season.
Currently, Joey Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske entry leads Trackhouse Racing by five points in the owner points. Chase Elliott’s No. 9 team at Hendrick Motorsports is 13 behind Team Penske, William Byron’s No. 24 team at Hendrick is 19 points behind and Larson’s No. 5 team at Hendrick is 20 behind Team Penske.
Logano leads the driver points by five over Chastain, 13 over Elliott and 19 over Byron. The four drivers below the cutline are Denny Hamlin, who is 24 out, Ryan Blaney, minus-37 and Christopher Bell, minus-52.
Of the drivers out of the Round of Eight, Larson has a wide lead over Daniel Suarez, who is 36 points behind Sunday’s race winner.
Larson could really jumble things up by winning Sunday’s race at Martinsville, putting the pressure on the drivers to get in based on points. He could also deliver the first split driver/owner championships in 59 years if he wins at Phoenix.
“If I say we were to win Phoenix, like my name isn’t going to be on the championship, but having our team be the champion I think is honestly better than — like I would hate to be in Ryan Blaney’s position,” Larson explained. “I think he’s the one that’s only in on driver, not owner. I would hate to be in his position, and say he wins the championship, and he is credited with a championship but not his team.
“If I was to have it one way or the other, I would rather be out on my end and be able to celebrate the team championship.
I’m happy that we get to go compete for that again, and honestly that’s the paycheck, too. We’re going to go for that, and we’re fired up about it.”
For Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, the owner’s championship is very important to team owner Rick Hendrick. He also has one chance at the driver’s title with Elliott.
“It means a lot to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports who have been giving us fast race cars all year long,” Daniels said. “I know it means a lot to Mr. H. I don’t think it quite sank into him yet when we were talking about it in Victory Lane that we were locked into the owner’s deal in Phoenix.
“The Roval was disappointing to get knocked out of the driver championship. But to have the reflection on the team be that we’re still in it, we’ve had a very character-building year, and we’ve had to be tough through the adversity and learn from our mistakes to still be in it and have a lot is pretty special.”
If Hendrick Motorsports wins the owner’s title, it would be the 15th for the team owned by Rick Hendrick.
“That’s remarkable,” Larson said. “That’s obviously a great feat in itself being where he’s at currently. He’s got four great drivers, four great teams that he can be confident in that can go chase to win a championship.
“Yeah, I’m happy that we are locked in to try and bring him his 15th. It means a lot, too.
“He’s got such a successful history in this sport, and when you think of team owners and teams, Hendrick Motorsports is the bar. They are the best team. It’s an honor to race for him and everything that they have built.
“I hope that I can do my part to bring him his 15th.”