Before this season, Kyle Larson had won six career NASCAR Cup Series races in parts of eight seasons. This year, he has won eight. Today's win at Texas may have been his easiest yet. Given that this was the win he needed to guarantee a spot in next month's Championship Four, the effortless-looking day could not have come at a better time.
Larson led 256 of 334 laps, but the more impressive feat was his ability to hold the lead during an onslaught of late restarts. Thanks in no small part to some cover from Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron and Chevrolet manufacturer ally Tyler Reddick, Larson survived six wild double-file restarts in the last 60 laps without even facing a real challenge to his lead. He is now officially locked into the Championship Four, a position his seven prior wins had effectively put him in on playoff points already, and will be able to take the next two weeks easy before staring down a one-in-four shot at his first career series title in November.
Behind Larson, the other playoff drivers had much more difficult days. Most of those issues came in that flurry of restarts, a chaotic hour of racing that broke up an otherwise largely dull day. Chase Briscoe brought out the first of the six yellows by spinning with a blown tire just behind Denny Hamlin, but it was the second yellow that first hurt a playoff driver. That would be Joey Logano, who blew an engine on the brief green flag run that followed. Logano would be scored a disappointing 30th.
Contact between Kyle Busch and Chris Buescher did not damage Busch, but it did lead to an accordion effect that left Anthony Alfredo caught between his own teammate checking up quickly and a few drivers behind him not quite checking up quickly enough. Alfredo spun hard into the wall, causing a fire that brought out a red flag and a third restart. The next run saw Denny Hamlin make contact with Ryan Blaney in a three-wide battle for position, leading to Hamlin getting a tire rub. Hamlin chose to stay out knowing that most outcomes involving a blown tire would be less disastrous than a conservative strategy to preserve the tire. His team was proven right when the tire gave out, leaving Hamlin spinning to bring out a fourth restart that left him within range of the lead lap. We'll see Hamlin again soon.
The fifth yellow was for his teammate, Martin Truex Jr., who got tapped from behind just after a restart by non-playoff driver Daniel Suarez. Truex saw his race end in the outside wall, leaving him scored a crushing 25th. That led to the fifth restart, which led to another accordion situation. This one ended with Denny Hamlin hitting the back of the No. 17 of Chris Buescher. Hamlin got some serious damage, but, with just 2 laps to go in the race, he was able to finish the race without a problem in a seriously impressive 11th.
After Larson pulled away in the sixth and final restart of the third stage, Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney decided a battle for themselves to be the second-highest finishing playoff driver. Keselowski recorded a vital fourth, while Ryan Blaney put himself in a great position with a finish of sixth. Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch rounded out the remaining playoff drivers in seventh and eighth, respectively.
Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch walk away from today's race in provisional position to join Larson in that Championship Four. Blaney is 17 points up on the field and in a great position to put himself into near-lock territory with another strong race at Kansas, but Hamlin and Busch are just 9 and 8 points, respectively, up on the cut-off line and defending champion Chase Elliott. Elliott, Larson, Busch, and Hamlin were the easy favorites to make up the Championship Four, so Blaney's impressive performance for Penske Racing today is an encouraging sign for that team ahead of another 1.5-mile race at Kansas.
Brad Keselowski sits 15 points behind the cut-off spot after an impressive day of his own, enough to keep him within reach on points with two races remaining. Martin Truex Jr. is 22 points back, a tough gap to make up in one race but something that can be handled in two. Joey Logano, at 43 points behind the field, needs either some serious misfortune from everyone else or a win in one of the next two races to advance to the next and final round.
Both the long green flag runs without any action on track and the flurry of cautions that led to more cautions were a worrying sign for NASCAR, but those issues have been acknowledged for years. These cars cannot reliably pass slower cars for position under green, so panic to optimize positions during every double-file restart lead to mistakes and closing speeds on drivers that lift for any reason lead to crashes further back in the pack. This is what Texas Motor Speedway is under this rule set, no small part of the reason that the next generation of stock cars is designed to minimize "dirty air" in traffic under green flag conditions. Thankfully, this is the last-ever race for these cars at this track.
Unfortunately, next weekend's race at Kansas is another 1.5-miler with this rule set. When the series is done with that race on Sunday, it will be the last ever charge of 550 horsepower high-downforce modern stock cars on a "cookie cutter" intermediate oval. Whether or not the same horsepower and downforce targets work better with the Next Gen car debuting next season, the push to change at least some of these problems will be welcome.
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