Kyle Larson was at peace being the NASCAR Cup Series championship runner-up at Phoenix Raceway, trailing Ryan Blaney to the finish. Larson, the 2021 series champion, felt that was all he could do Sunday afternoon.
“I know it didn’t look maybe like it that last run,” he said. “That was all I had. Our team did a really good job of putting us in that spot. I am still obviously extremely bummed, as I’m sure Denny [Hamlin] was last week. Even though I didn’t feel like I had the fast car, I had an opportunity. It’s a bummer when you don’t win.
“At the same point, I’m probably coming up this close, probably more eager for the following season already. I know where I need to improve and I’m just ready to get back on the track and work on all that. Yeah, bummed but also eager to get into the offseason, get working and ready for next year.”
Although Larson came off pit road leading the championship contenders for the race’s final restart with 31 laps to go, he could only hold them off for 10 laps. The pass for the championship came with 21 laps to go when Blaney drove around the outside of the No. 5.
Larson restarted third, the second driver in the inside lane. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate and fellow championship rival, William Byron, restarted in the row behind him while Blaney restarted to Byron’s outside.
Blaney quickly dispatched Byron to move to third place in the running order and second in the championship hunt behind Larson. It took two more laps before Larson was caught by the Penske car, and after the two worked different lanes and sized each other up, Blaney used the outside lane to make the pass.
“When I saw him get to third as quickly as he did, I knew I was going to be in trouble,” Larson said. “I felt like I could maybe hold off William for the length of that run. Holding off Ryan was going to be tough. He (Blaney) could just move around a lot better than me, kind of be more comfortable on the edge. He definitely looked loose, but he could still push the car. I couldn’t push the car really further than what I was.
“I felt really committed to the bottom. Even when I would move around and make my car feel better, it was slower on lap time. I knew I was in a little bit of trouble and was going to try to put up a fight. I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to hold him off. He did a really good job. His team continued to improve on the race car throughout the last few months. They deserved to win.”
Larson did not lead a lap Sunday. In three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, Larson has won 17 races and finished no worse than seventh in the championship with two Championship 4 appearances.