Another NASCAR playoff race, another Kyle Larson victory. Larson's ninth win of the year at Kansas Speedway on Sunday wasn't as dominant as Texas but the result was still the same, a 3.6-second cushion over Chase Elliott in a freebie race for a driver who's already clinched a spot in the championship.
It was a meaningful win for Hendrick Motorsports, 17 years to the day since owner Rick Hendrick's son Ricky was among 10 people killed in a plane crash just outside Martinsville Speedway. The incident also claimed Hendrick's brother, John, along with John's two twin daughters.
"So crazy kind of how it all worked out there for me to win," Larson said. "I know they were all looking down helping me in all the restarts and stuff after getting in the wall."
Larson was one of five title contenders bitten by the wind swirling around the 1.5-mile oval. The unexpected gusts left several drivers hitting the wall with damage, unusual for an intermediate track in the low-horsepower package where most drivers are able to run wide open.
"The wind picked up kind of out of nowhere," Larson said. "It was a lot. Canopies were blowing off their pit boxes and stuff. It was a huge crosswind for us."
But as he has most of the year, Larson was able to overcome the handling challenge with teammate Elliott right behind him, putting HMS 1-2 in the standings with one race left until the Championship 4 finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Larson's victory has put him on the verge of one of the all-time best seasons in NASCAR with a new goal in mind: 10 wins. It's only happened once this century (Jimmie Johnson in 2007) as parity across the sport's top teams keep so many drivers in contention each week. He's already clinched the laps led record (2,397) since the season expanded to 36 races in 2001. Larson's also right on pace to eclipse the performance Kevin Harvick had last year.
- Harvick in 2020: 9 wins, 20 top 5s, 27 top 10s in 36 races
- Larson in 2021: 9 wins, 19 top 5s, 25 top 10s in 34 races
No one thinks of that comparison much because of Harvick's late-season collapse that cost him a shot at the title in this wacky playoff format. Larson didn't make the same mistake, peaking at the right time to earn his Championship 4 opportunity. But he knows how people will perceive his year if the No. 5 team doesn't cash in.
"It's like hard for me to think," Larson said. "If people will really remember if you don't win the championship now at this point… so that's my goal. And I hope we can finish it off with being mentioned in one of the top five greatest seasons ever."
Green: Chase Elliott AND Kevin Harvick
Lookie here, NASCAR's two biggest rivals in the same sentence and it's not about them tearing each other in half. Elliott's second-place run was calm and collected, a bounce-back performance after a rocky playoff that puts him in position to defend his title at Phoenix.
Part of that was Harvick's restraint after NASCAR wagged the finger to end their feud. The reward was a third-place finish after battling Elliott that gives him a seventh top 10 in eight playoff races -- one more than point leader Larson.
Yellow: Denny Hamlin
A fifth-place finish by Hamlin was labeled decidedly "average" in his words for a driver who's cooled off a touch after a hot postseason start.
A 32-point edge on the cutline should get Hamlin into the Championship 4 no problem, even if another driver in the Round of 8 pulls a Martinsville upset. But for this 40-year-old, it's all about winning the championship at this point and the speed to get by Larson just doesn't seem to be there. We've seen this movie before.
Fun fact: Ford won the Daytona 500 and four of the first 10 races this season, more than any other manufacturer. Despite an off year for Harvick, it was shaping up to be a banner year for the Blue Ovals.
Not anymore. Fords are 0-for-8 in the playoffs and, if the season ended today, would fail to make a Championship 4 appearance for the first time in history. Team Penske's trio of Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have all suffered through costly Round of 8 mistakes.
Speeding Ticket: 550 Horsepower Package
This race marked the end of the sport's low-horsepower, high-downforce package with the current car. It was a change marked with heavy fanfare back in 2019 despite drivers concerned about how it would limit their ability to make a difference behind the wheel.
Those NASCAR veterans were proven right. Restarts are wild, in part because everyone knows it's the one chance with the draft to gain positions in bulk. But after that, the cars often spread out and get stuck in place with no difference in speed for drivers to pass each other. It's hard when you're all running wide open and there's limited ways you can gain speed on someone else.
NASCAR feels the Next Gen chassis will solve this problem, keeping the 550-horsepower package at a dozen races next year. I have a feeling that's going to be a one-year deal, especially with attendance issues at intermediates like Texas last week.
No one was hurt more by the weird Kansas crosswinds than Ryan Blaney, not even Kyle Busch, whose early-race accident left him laps off the pace.
Minding his business on a restart, the No. 12 Ford slammed into the wall when Austin Dillon nearly lost control off turn 2.
The incident left Blaney out of the race in 37th, wiping out a 17-point advantage on the playoff cutline. He now has to nudge his way back in at Martinsville, a track he's never won at in 11 career Cup starts.
"We got run into from two lanes below me," Blaney said. "Obviously, it hurts. Finishing 37th is not prime ... just got wiped out when we had plenty of room. Sucks."