By David Morgan, Associate Editor
INDIANAPOLIS – Is it better to be lucky than good? For Kyle Larson, Sunday at Indianapolis was a bit of both.
Coming into Sunday’s Verizon 200 on the IMS road course in a dead heat with Denny Hamlin for the regular season points lead, Larson looked to be on a leisurely drive around the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course en route to yet another win before the late stages of the race took a weird turn toward chaos, seemingly taking him out of contention.
However, when the dust settled and the smoke cleared, Larson came away with a third-place finish to take over the outright points lead with two races remaining in the regular season.
Despite running on limited sleep courtesy of his travels between Indianapolis and Knoxville, Iowa, where he achieved a lifelong dream by winning the Knoxville Nationals on Saturday night, Larson made the most of his Sunday as he looked to secure a win for himself at The Racing Capital of the World.
Though he didn’t arrive back to Indianapolis until around 4:00 am Sunday, Larson didn’t miss a beat during qualifying Sunday morning, timing in fourth fastest.
After a power nap before the 1:13 pm green flag for the 82-lap Cup race, Larson maintained a top-five position in the running order during the first stage before ducking off onto pit road before the stage ended. When the first green-checkered flag waved, Larson would be scored in 13th.
Once pit stops cycled through during the first stage break, Larson moved back into the top-five, eventually falling into second-place behind his Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott. The two would stage a thrilling battle for the lead as the laps wound down in the second stage before following the same game plan as the first stage and heading to pit road with two laps left in the stage.
Elliott and Larson would return to the track in lockstep with each other and once again the battle was on. Duking it out to the stage break, Larson would get the better of Elliott, crossing the line in ninth, with Elliott close behind in 10th.
The duo would once again cycle back to the front during the stage break, setting up a final stage showdown to see who would be taking home the victory in the first Cup Series race on the IMS road course.
Larson took off with the lead when the green flag flew to start the final stage and maintained the advantage over another of his Hendrick teammates in William Byron, with Elliott running third before making the exit onto pit road on lap 55 for his final green flag stop of the race.
After staying out as long as possible during the final green flag pit stop cycle and holding onto the lead for eight laps, Hamlin finally ducked off onto pit road with 20 laps left, allowing Matt DiBenedetto to take over the lead momentarily before the running order returned to the status quo, with Larson back atop the leaderboard, Elliott in second, and Byron third.
From that point on, Larson was firmly in control, but a debris caution with 10 laps to go gave his competitors one final shot at taking him down.
Diverging strategies between the frontrunners and those further back in the pack would see Larson leading the majority of the field down pit road, while Hamlin, Kurt Busch, DiBenedetto, and Chase Briscoe rolled the dice, staying out on track and cycling to the front, with Larson restarting in fifth-place.
With the green flag flying for the restart with six laps remaining, that’s when things got weird.
Hamlin would lead the field down for a chaotic restart, with Larson moving up to second, but on lap 79, a nine-car wreck and the first of two red flags would send the race into overtime. On the first overtime restart, Larson was pushed wide into Turn 1, causing him to drop back several spots before another multi-car crash broke out in Turn 6, bringing out the red flag once more.
After a wait of a little over four minutes, the race resumed with Hamlin and Chase Briscoe at the front of the field. In the second overtime restart, while Briscoe was making a detour through the grass on the outside of Turn 1 and Hamlin looked to be on his way to his first win of the season, Larson was methodically working his way forward and quickly returned to the top-five.
Though he had been assessed a penalty by NASCAR for his off-track excursion, Briscoe was racing like he was still in the running for the win, following closely in Hamlin’s tire tracks. The two would make contact, sending Hamlin spinning off course.
In the midst of that chaos, Larson climbed to third, where he would remain until the checkered flag flew.
“It was wild there at the end,” Larson said. “My car was extremely good. Really proud of everybody on our Hendrickcars.com team. We had the best car for sure throughout the second and third stage, and then just we had the caution there with like 10 to go or something and then we had to come down, put tires on, and some guys gambled and stayed out, and that kind of just got us in the mess a little bit. Was able to find my way to the front row and then just got shoved around and put in the grass. Kind of ended my shot to win there.
“But able to salvage a third, so happy about that, and a good points day.”
The spin would cost Hamlin dearly as he finished 23rd on the day, dropping him 22 points behind Larson, but he was able to clinch a Playoff spot in the process, giving his day a bit of a silver lining.
The Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway next weekend, followed by a Saturday night shootout under the lights in Daytona to settle the regular season championship and set the 16-driver Playoff field.