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AP photo by Rick Scuteri / Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson holds his son Owen as they celebrate his victory Sunday at Phoenix Raceway to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Larson won. That was the expected result in the NASCAR Cup Series finale with the championship on the line, right?

During a season in which he had already won nine points races and the $1 million All-Star Race, Larson closed his comeback campaign with another victory Sunday at Phoenix Raceway for his first championship in a NASCAR national series.

Suspended for most of the 2020 season, the 29-year-old was in tears during his cooldown laps in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet as he reflected on his path from unemployed NASCAR driver to Cup Series champion.

"I was just thinking about the journey and how tough of a road it's been to get to this point for so long, but especially the last year and a half," Larson said. "I haven't felt an atmosphere like this maybe ever. With the pressure of this race and everything that was on the line, to win this championship, every one of these fans made me feel it.

"I was trying to tell myself to just chill out, stop tearing up. I make fun of my dad all the time for crying, and I'm worse than he is. I can't believe it. I didn't even think I'd be a racing a car a year and a half ago."

After his impressive season, Sunday's result may not have been a surprise, but it wasn't without drama. Larson led seven times for a race-high 108 laps but was running fourth, last among the four remaining title contenders, as Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin controlled the championship battle late in a pair of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas.

Then a caution reset everything.

Because he won the pole position during Saturday's qualifying session, Larson had the first stall on pit road and the shortest sprint back onto the track of the four contenders. He silently prayed for a flawless service call from his crew to get back on track ahead of his title rivals, which included Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott, who was trying to repeat as series champion.

The No. 5 team delivered in style. Larson's crew performed its second-fastest stop of the season — a span that stretches 38 races — and he went from last among the final four to first.

"I knew the only way we were going to pull it off is if our pit crew got us off as a leader, and damn they did. That was just crazy," Larson said. "Those guys nailed the pit stop."

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NASCAR Cup Series finale on Nov. 7, 2021

Larson controlled the restart with 25 laps remaining, quickly cleared Truex, then held off several challenges from the 2017 season champion. Just like most of this season, there was no stopping Larson, and he beat Truex to the finish line by an easy .398 second.

"There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win," Larson said. "Without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They are the true winners of this race. They are true champions.

"I'm just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single man or person, man and woman at Hendrick Motorsports, this win is for all of us, and every one of you. This is unbelievable."

Truex finished second and was followed by Hamlin, the only title contender who did not lead a lap Sunday. The 40-year-old's quest for his first Cup Series crown remains unfinished after he finished fourth the previous two seasons.

Truex, 41 has finished second in the final standings three times in the four seasons since he won his lone Cup Series title with Furniture Row Racing.

"Second hurts, I'm not going to lie, especially with the car we had and the job the guys did," Truex said.

Hamlin, who finished second to Larson for the regular-season title, has firmly maintained that Larson should be the champion. That didn't soften the blow of another title defeat for the three-time Daytona 500 winner.

"An time you can win 10 races in a year, you're absolutely a deserving champion," Hamlin said. "They did a great job on the last pit stop and got him out there, and he just set sail after that."

Elliot led 94 laps but finished fourth. The 25-year-old from Georgia called Larson and his crew "very, very deserving champions" and said he was glad to see his teammate succeed.

"When you're a good driver and a good person and you surround yourself with good people, success is warranted," Elliott said. "It's good to see that."

Larson was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing four races into the 2020 season and lost nearly every sponsor for his use of a racial slur while competing in an online race during NASCAR's shutdown amid the coronavirus pandemic. He retreated to his sprint car roots to rebuild his life, and he also volunteered for multiple grassroots organizations as he worked to learn more about himself and social justice issues.

Rick Hendrick hired him after NASCAR lifted his suspension, and Larson watched last year's finale from the competition compound on the Hendrick Motorsports campus in North Carolina. A year later, he gave the organization its 14th Cup Series title.

"I never thought I was taking a risk. I know how good he is," Hendrick said. "I'm just fortunate we were able to get him, and, man, what a wheelman he is."

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