HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP)Kyle Larson found his way back into NASCAR’s headlines. This time, for a much more pleasant reason.
Larson held off Ross Chastain to cap a dominant showing at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, after leading 199 of the 267 laps over the 1-1/2 mile course.
It was Larson’s third win of the season, coming two weeks after the reigning Cup champion was eliminated from this year’s playoffs – and a week after he was intentionally spun by Bubba Wallace in an act of retaliation at Las Vegas.
On Sunday, the suspended Wallace was watching. Larson, meanwhile, was winning.
”Definitely the best run we’ve had all year long,” Larson said.
AJ Allmendinger was third and Austin Dillon fourth, as Chevrolets took the top four spots.
Even though Larson can’t win the title, his Hendrick Motorsports team still can – now having clinched a spot in the field that will decide the owners’ championship in Phoenix.
”We’re still technically not out of it,” Larson said. ”I can’t win the championship, but it means more to me to win it as a team. We’re going to go to Phoenix and try to get another championship.”
And he will drive Phoenix as if he’s driving for his own title.
”Oh, yeah,” Larson said. ”Duh.”
It wasn’t exactly close at the end; Larson beat Chastain to the line by 1.261 seconds. Chastain could have clinched a berth in the winner-take-all Phoenix race for the title if he had won at Homestead.
The four-car field for the drivers’ title race will be finalized next week in Martinsville, with seven drivers heading there to compete for three remaining spots. Only Joey Logano, through his win at Las Vegas last week, has his berth clinched.
”Track position’s going to be so huge,” Denny Hamlin said. ”You’re going to see aggressive driving.”
Hamlin is on the wrong side of the cutline going into Martinsville. Chastain is second, Chase Elliott is third and William Byron – the polesitter for Sunday – is fourth.
”It took a good part of the race to get up there and get the car turning,” Chastain said. ”Incredible day on pit road by the boys.”
There will be a race within the race next week. Chastain doesn’t need to win to clinch a berth in the field for the title race, but didn’t seem too interested in all the mathematical permutations after getting out of his car in Homestead.
”We’re just going to go race,” Chastain said. ”That’s all I know how to do.”
Hamlin is five points back of Byron, followed by Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe in eighth.
Among the playoff drivers, after runner-up Chastain, Hamlin was seventh, Bell 11th, Byron 12th, Elliott 14th, Blaney 17th, Logano 18th and Briscoe 36th in the 36-car field.
Martin Truex Jr., who led the field for 28 laps, was headed to the pits late in the race when a caution flag came out – and found trouble as he got there. Larson tapped the back of Truex’s car and Truex wound up spinning 180 degrees and ending up in his stall, but with the front of his car facing the wrong direction. It also seemed possible, given where Truex was, that he might have missed his stall entirely as the setting sun starting casting serious shadow over much of Homestead.
”My team said he was late turning into his stall,” Larson said. ”I don’t know. If it was my fault, I’m sorry. I don’t think it was. It’s hard to see on this pit road.”
For as bad as that moment was for Truex, it could have been much worse. His skidding car sent members of his pit crew scurrying for safety, some getting over the wall with just a split-second to spare.
Said Truex: ”It was really hard to see. … I did see my box late, for sure.”
Truex came back to finish sixth and raced Hamlin – his teammate – hard for late position, costing Hamlin valuable playoff points.
Briscoe – a past winner at Homestead in the trucks and Xfinity series – came into Sunday looking for a big showing that would help his playoff hopes, or even a victory that would clinch his spot in the finale.
He didn’t make it out of Stage 2. Briscoe completed only 160 laps, going into the wall and damaging his car beyond repair.
”It’s broke bad,” Briscoe said into his radio, as white smoke billowed from the back of his Ford. His title chances are badly damaged now as well, and his only path toward making the winner-take-all finale in Phoenix is to win next week at Martinsville.
He blamed himself. Driver’s mistake, he said.
”It’s like I hit ice,” Briscoe said. ”Frustrating. I think that’s the first time I ever just crashed by myself. Embarrassing on that side. Of all the times for it to happen, that’s not when we needed it to happen. We know what we need to do next week now.”
NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart was originally slated to serve as grand marshal for the race. Plans changed, and country singer Kip Moore – who performed a pre-race concert – wound up giving the ”Drivers, start your engines” command instead.
Homestead occupies the same spot on the 2023 NASCAR schedule – second-to-last, just before Martinsville and the title race in Phoenix.
NASCAR’s next-to-last race of the season is at Martinsville, with the final playoff spots up for grabs before the finale at Phoenix. Byron held off Logano in overtime to win at Martinsville back in early April.
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