By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Entering the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Kyle Larson was one of the “big three” that everyone thought was a lock to make it through the postseason with relative ease to fight for the championship in the season finale at Homestead, but as the knockout format has shown over the last few years, anything can happen and on Sunday at Kansas, he would be on the losing end of that.
After four wins in the regular season, Larson was ranked the highest among the drivers that had yet to win in the Round of 12, carrying a 29-point advantage over the cut-off line into Kansas, and many expected that margin would be enough to keep him safe. Unfortunately, for the No. 42 team, that would not be the case.
Larson moved his way from his 13th place starting position into the top-10 in short order and looked to finish there as the end of the first stage drew nearer. However, he lost a cylinder in his engine and tried to stay out on track to ride it out until the stage break when the team had planned to swap out the ECU. Before they could make it to that point, the engine let go completely, with smoke billowing from underneath the car, signaling the end of his day.
“It just dropped a cylinder 10 laps ago or so and then it suddenly got worse and finally blew up,” Larson said. “I hate that we blew an engine and probably blew our shot at the championship, but luck is a big factor of our sport.”
The blown engine dropped Larson to 39th on the running order and under normal circumstances that would be enough to be the nail in the coffin of his championship hopes, but with it coming just 77 laps into the race, he still had a shot at making his way in if others had trouble throughout the remainder of the day.
And that’s exactly what would happen.
Fellow championship contenders Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth would also run into issues of their own late in the race after a series of spins and crashes that the two were involved in. At one point, Larson had moved back into the top-eight, but by the time the checkered flag flew, he was back to ninth in points, where he would remain, leaving Kansas with a nine-point deficit.
Larson’s engine issues mark the second year in a row that engine problems have sidelined one of the championship favorites and the second year that his own playoff run ended with a mechanical failure.
“I’m not stunned because freak things happen in every sport,” said Larson. “I mean you look at every year in the past and a lot of times, most every time at least in the new Playoff format era not always does the best team win. Not saying we are the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. So, I’m not stunned, because it is a long 10 race Playoff season, so anything can happen, but we have had a solid Playoffs. We have been consistent and just now got bit.”