FORT WORTH, Texas — Kyle Larson was willing to play it smart in the closing laps Sunday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway. He also had a fast ride that stayed in front through all of the restarts to secure the first of the four championship-contending spots in next month's NASCAR Cup Series season finale.
Larson led 256 of 334 laps and earned his eighth points win this season — he also won the $1 million NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas in June — with the 29-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver leading the final 218 laps and staying in front through seven restarts in the final stage that included three in the final 34 laps 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 (the first turn) 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."
This was the first chance for anyone to guarantee a shot at racing for the season title Nov. 7 in Phoenix, and Larson — already with a significant points lead and coming off a win on Charlotte Motor Speedway's Roval course a week earlier to close out the second elimination round — left no doubt about the No. 5 Chevrolet being part of the final four.
The seven remaining playoff contenders exited Texas with two more chances to get into the championship four, with races at Kansas Speedway next Sunday and at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 31 remaining before the finale. Ryan Blaney, Hamlin and Kyle Busch are above the cutline going to Kansas, while reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott is fifth, ahead of Brad Keselowski, Truex and Logano.
There were two laps remaining on the final restart, and with a push from Keselowski, Larson was able to stay out in front of teammate William Byron.
"Kyle really deserves it," Byron said. "They've been awesome all year, flawless on pit road, and they do everything right."
Larson's first appearance in NASCAR's championship four will come in the same season Rick Hendrick gave him an opportunity to get back into the Cup Series. Larson, who made his debut on the top circuit in 2013, missed most of last season while suspended for using a racial slur on a livestream while in a virtual race when NASCAR was shut down during the coronavirus pandemic. That cost him his seat with Chip Ganassi Racing, most of his sponsorship and nearly his career before Hendrick signed him.
"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 sixth through eighth.
"Well, we didn't need all those yellows," Keselowski said of the caution flags. "We needed the long runs to be able to keep them honest. We had long-run speed, but the 5 and 24 (Byron) 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 Team Penske's Blaney made contact with Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing 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; he 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."
JGR's Truex was later done after contact with Daniel Suarez that sent him hard into the wall.
Penske's 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 lone 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 JGR 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."
Bubba Wallace was in the middle while three wide going onto the back stretch 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 Series race since the 1997 debut with a 13-car crash at the start of the race.