By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
CONCORD, N.C. – Survive and advance.
For Kyle Larson, never were those three words more meaningful than Sunday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway when a late race crash seemed to doom his chances to move on in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, but he wound up advancing on by the skin of his teeth when all was said and done.
Larson entered the day with a healthy 17-point lead over the cut-off line having finished second and seventh in the first two races of the first round and showed speed throughout the weekend with a fifth-place qualifying run.
As the day progressed, Larson made his presence known as one of the cars to beat for the win, having taken the lead for the first time at lap seven and holding steady at the front of the field for 47 laps, including the Stage 1 win.
Battling with Brad Keselowski late in the race a caution at lap 103 bunched the field back up for a restart the following lap, with Keselowski on the inside of the front row and Larson on the outside.
When the green flag flew for the restart, Keselowski locked up the brakes heading toward Turn 1 and went straight into the wall at the aptly named “Heartburn Turn.” Larson and others behind him weren’t able to make the corner either and piled in as well. By the time all was said and done, 15 cars were involved in some capacity, bringing out the red flag.
At that point, Larson’s day turned from a battle for the win to a battle for his life in the playoffs as he and his team turned their attention to how badly damaged their No. 42 car was and what they would need to transpire in order to stave off the heartbreak of an early postseason elimination for the second year in a row.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t get the win today,” said Larson. “I felt like I had the fastest car. I would have liked the race to play out there and stay green because it sounded like Brad (Keselowski) was short on fuel and we going to be able to make it, I thought, after all the saving we had been doing. But, it didn’t work out and then we had that re-start.
“I knew it would be tight through (Turn) 1 and wouldn’t turn great, but I didn’t know we’d all go in there and not be able to turn at all. I was even going to be lucky to make the corner. And then the No. 2 (Keselowski) came straight through and hit the wall head-on. And, I ran into his back bumper and destroyed the right front. I was pretty mad at myself there.”
After limping back to pit road, Larson’s crew went to work on his Chevrolet, getting it drivable enough to be able to complete the race. The car would not meet minimum speed, but with only three laps remaining, that didn’t matter under NASCAR rules.
However, just finishing the race was not all that Larson would have to deal with, as he still needed help to be able to make it through to the next round.
That help came in two forms. First, Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex, Jr. crashed each other while battling for the win in the frontstretch chicane, dropping them from a 1-2 finish to finishes of sixth and 13th, respectively.
The other help that Larson got was from Jeffrey Earnhardt, whose car was spun by Daniel Hemric in the same chicane as Johnson and Truex and he was unable to get his car re-fired soon enough. Though he bounced off the walls a few times over the course of the final lap, Larson drove past Earnhardt’s stalled car on the frontstretch and beat him to the line to finish 25th.
Those two events threw Larson into a three-way tie for the 11th and 12th place points position with Johnson and Aric Almirola, with Larson and Almirola getting the nod to move on by winning the tie-breaker (best finish of the round) and leaving Johnson on the outside looking in.
“It’s a miracle,” said team co-owner Felix Sabates. “I give all the credit on that one to the crew chief for making the call that he did and the pit crew for doing what they did.
“When he came on pit road, that car was a piece of junk. He went on because he had to make the speed and the camber was so far out, the right-front tire was going to fall out of the car. We brought him back in and beat it with a hammer and threw some bolts in there and he was able to finish the race.”