The 2021 NASCAR Playoffs are officially here, so we can probably go ahead and pencil in Kyle Larson as this year’s champion, right?
Wrong. So very, very wrong.
The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports driver rolls into the 10-race jaunt to cap the year as the Regular Season Champion and heavy favorite (9-4) to hoist the trophy in November at Phoenix Raceway. Enjoying easily the best season of his career already, it’s not hard to picture a world in which Larson adds onto his series-leading five wins over the next two and a half months and battles for the title out in the desert, as the odds and every expert under the sun suggest.
There’s no such thing as a guarantee in auto racing, however, and we don’t have to look too far to see that regular-season dominance doesn’t necessarily pave a clear path to a Bill France Cup.
At this point a year ago, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick had combined to win 13 of the 26 regular-season races. In total, Harvick finished the year with nine victories to Hamlin’s seven, as the pair sat in a class of their own above the rest of the field.
Only one of them made it to the Championship 4 to compete for the title. Exactly neither of them walked away from the desert as champion.
Being the favorite is one thing. Fulfilling that destiny is another.
So, after seeing that drama unfold last fall, how does it feel to be the favorite before the postseason officially kicks off this Sunday for the Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at Darlington Raceway?
“Yeah, I don’t know, I mean, it means you’re in a fast race car and you’re doing a good job, so it’s good,” Larson said Tuesday during NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Media Day. “I mean, it’s not like everybody’s gunning for you and you have a target on your back or anything like that. It’s just a cool spot to be in.
“It’s been a lot of hard work to get to this point. Now we’ve got a great opportunity to go chase a championship. We’ve been doing a great job doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve just got to continue that and execute well. Hopefully, it will all kind of take care of itself.”
Hearing Larson say he doesn’t think other top drivers are gunning for him is interesting, as he’s clearly been the driver to beat after Hamlin opened the season as a top-five machine before cooling slightly and remaining winless to present day.
Perhaps drivers have finally adjusted to the fickle nature of a 10-race, elimination-style format, knowing anything is possible and a season’s fortune can turn on a dime. Perhaps the top talent is just that — top talent — because focusing on things beyond one’s control, such as what other drivers are doing, only serves as a distraction from the ultimate goal.
That doesn’t mean they haven’t noticed what Larson has put in the books so far, just that the slate is now wiped clean to a degree, the focus turns forward and it’s anyone’s ballgame.
“Certainly the last 12-13 races (the No. 5 team has) been on top of their game,” said Hamlin. “Kyle’s been on top of his game and really evolved as a driver. He’s gotten better at all different types of race tracks and they’ve got super-fast race cars. Doesn’t matter whether it’s road courses or 550 (horsepower tracks) but I believe we’re slowly creeping in on that and I believe that we’re a team that is just as dangerous on all different types of race tracks.
“Ultimately, yeah, we’ll need to beat him in the end, and I wish we could race these last 10 races out like the regular season has been going; so tight back and forth these last six, seven weeks. It’s a reset now and it’s a three-race season. You’re not really racing him until the final race if he makes it and I make it. You’re racing that cut line.”
If he makes it.
That’s almost all you need to know right there.
Hendrick Motorsports has been sensational as a whole this year, and with its four cars comprising a quarter of the playoff field it seems extremely unlikely at least one of them won’t be competing in the Championship 4. It’s even possible one of Larson’s teammates — last year’s champion, for instance — could knock him out.
“It’s definitely unique, for sure. But I think we’ve all — a lot of us have been around racing long enough, have been doing it long enough, to kind of understand how that dynamic works,” 2020 champion Chase Elliott said Tuesday. “At the end of the day, I feel like for Mr. Hendrick especially, he’s done a lot for the sport, he’s changed a lot of people’s lives in the sport, mine included. If his cars are racing against each other for a championship, I think he deserves that.
” … I’m for it. And it really doesn’t matter who you’re racing against, you just hope you’re around at the end of this thing and have a shot. … Like, a lot of these teams have four cars. If you’re at a solid organization, there’s a good chance you’re going to be racing against your teammates for big moments, big opportunities. Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing. It means we’re at a great organization and you have a chance to win and have won some races.”
It could be Larson alone in the Championship 4. It could be Larson vs. Elliott. Heck, it could even be Alex Bowman (three wins) and/or William Byron (series-best top-10 streak from Miami to Dover). You just don’t know, and fate doesn’t play favorites.
Another note worth mentioning: only one of the tracks Larson has won at this season (Las Vegas) appears again the rest of the way, and it’s relatively early on as the Round of 12 opener. It’s potentially a dire need for him to be successful in that race, with a pair of wild cards in Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (which Larson hasn’t raced on since 2019) making up the back two-thirds of the Round of 12. He hasn’t raced on Bristol (Round of 16 cutoff) without dirt since ’19, too.
Nearly all of the remaining tracks appeared on the schedule earlier in the year, with all of the repeats ending with a current playoff driver in Victory Lane: Darlington (Martin Truex Jr.), Richmond (Bowman), Bristol, albeit dirt (Joey Logano), Las Vegas (Larson), Talladega (Brad Keselowski), Kansas (Kyle Busch), Martinsville (Truex), Phoenix (Truex). Texas (Round of 8 opener) hosted the All-Star Race, which Larson did win.
His competitors know he’ll be tough to beat despite some of the factors working against him.
They also know a team, when the pressure ramps up, can just as easily beat itself.
“Larson obviously is a top talent. We’ve all known that for a long time,” said 2015 champ Kyle Busch. ” … I think they won Vegas was their first one, so he’s been right there all season long and been competitive and fast, and probably could’ve had a few more wins. I think we stole one from him at Kansas; they lost one on the last corner of the last lap at Pocono, so things could’ve looked a hell of a lot worse for the rest of us if he had a few more wins under his belt with the playoff points. It is what it is, but we all know that he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with and it’s just going to be a matter of who are the other three that join him in the (Championship 4).
“And look, the wheels can fall off of it at any time. I’ve been there and done that. Look at the 2008 playoffs and I think there was another year where I got wrecked at Talladega and that took us out of the championship right there, so anything can happen. But those guys certainly have just got to be weighing their options as to limiting their mistakes.”
Nobody knows what’s to come over the next 10 weeks — but, if history has taught us anything, we know it won’t be a cakewalk for Kyle Larson.