Larson, who just turned 21 last month, has enjoyed a spectacular rise through the racing ranks. In less than three years, the native of Elk Grove, California has gone from finishing 10th in his first Truck Series start at Kentucky in 2012 to leading this year’s battle for Cup Series Rookie of the Year. He’s scored five top-five finishes and ten top-tens in Cup in 2014, scored his first pole at Pocono and earned a career-best 2nd to Kyle Busch at Fontana.
Larson came to Michigan 10th in points after a 4th-place finish at Watkins Glen, a run that moved him into the third of four spots for winless drivers to transfer into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup. With an 8th-place run at Michigan in June on top of his weekend at Fontana, hopes were high for another strong finish.
Larson was 17th-fastest in the opening practice session, then narrowly missed transferring into the final round of qualifying. His lap of 204.082 mph was still good enough to put him 13th on the starting grid, and he improved to 7th in the second practice and 2nd to polesitter and eventual race winner Jeff Gordon in Happy Hour.
Sunday’s race featured a surprising amount of changes in the Bottom Five as several contenders faced early problems. Sonoma last-place finisher Landon Cassill started 43rd in Hillman Racing’s #40, one of four drivers sent to the back before the start for driver and mechanical changes. This included J.J. Yeley, driving in relief of rookie Ryan Truex, who suffered a concussion in a scary practice accident exiting Turn 2 on Saturday morning.
On Lap 2, Joe Nemechek took the 43rd spot from Cassill, then both were passed by Kyle Busch, who tagged the wall in Turn 4, then hit it again in Turn 2, bringing out the first caution of the day. With track-record-breaking speeds all weekend adding to the severity of the hit, Busch’s car required 25 laps of repairs in the garage area. No sooner did Busch return to the track when a multi-car accident on Lap 26 sent four more back in his place - Justin Allgaier, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex, Jr., and Trevor Bayne. Truex returned to the track first, eight laps down, shuffling Allgaier, Kenseth, and Bayne to 40th through 42nd.
Busch passed Bayne on Lap 50, dropping Bayne to last, and Kenseth returned to the track on Lap 52, moving him past Allgaier. Now in 43rd, Bayne seemed on his way for his second last-place finish in four races, but he too returned on Lap 69, dropping Allgaier to last on Lap 71. Seven laps later, Jeff Burton, driving in relief of Tony Stewart, went to the garage for smoke in the cockpit, and also seemed done for the day. However, with so many cars multiple laps down, Burton was still not in the Bottom Five when the caution flew on Lap 98.
By that lap, Larson’s promising start to the weekend had taken a frustrating turn. During the competition caution on Lap 22, Larson collided with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. while leaving pit road, tearing up the left-front fender of Larson’s car. This required a second stop that left him 42nd when the Lap 26 wreck occurred in the middle of the pack. While Larson avoided that accident, his car’s aerodynamics were compromised, leaving him toward the back of the pack. Then, on Lap 98, Larson lost a right-front tire, sending him hard into the outside wall in Turn 4. Uninjured, but with his car on fire, Larson climbed out - the first driver to do so under NASCAR’s new post-crash regulations instituted in response to the death of Kevin Ward, Jr.
Larson was the first car out of the race, but it still appeared that Allgaier would remain in 43rd with Burton’s smoking car eventually joining him in 42nd. However, Allgaier returned to the track during Larson’s caution on Lap 100, his #51 now 73 laps down. Burton returned to the race around the same time, meaning that six cars behind Larson were all 24 or more laps down with less than 100 to go.
One final contender joined in when Michael Annett, damaged in the multi-car crash, spent several laps in the garage repairing his #7 Chevrolet. However, when he returned to the race, Larson fell to the rear unopposed. He took 42nd on Lap 139, then 43rd on Lap 170. Allgaier, Bayne, Annett, and Kyle Busch rounded out the Bottom Five with Kenseth, Burton, and Truex each ten-plus laps ahead of the group.
Larson’s last-place finish has dropped him to 14th in points. With three races to go before the cutoff to the Chase, he now must either win his way in or pass at least three of the six winless drivers now ranked ahead of him in points: Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, and Austin Dillon.
*This is the first last-place finish for the #42 in a Cup Series race since November 2, 2008, when Juan Pablo Montoya’s Texaco / Havoline Dodge was involved in a crash that ended his run in the Dickies 500 at Texas. Montoya also scored the number’s most recent last-place finish at Michigan, which took place one week before his first Cup Series win at Sonoma in 2007.
*This marks the first time that three driver scored their first last-place finishes in their respective NASCAR divisions on the same weekend since September 21-23, 2012: Blake Koch (Trucks at Kentucky), Charles Lewandoski (Nationwide at Kentucky), and Kelly Bires (Cup at New Hampshire).
*This also marks the first time that three drivers scored their first-ever last-place finishes in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions on the same weekend since February 13-15, 2009: Landon Cassill (Trucks at Daytona), Chrissy Wallace (Nationwide at Daytona), and Joey Logano (Cup at Daytona 500).
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #42-Kyle Larson / 94 laps / crash
42) #51-Justin Allgaier / 97 laps / crash
41) #21-Trevor Bayne / 153 laps / running
40) #7-Michael Annett / 155 laps / vibration
39) #18-Kyle Busch / 159 laps / running
LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Dave Blaney (2)
2nd) A.J. Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne, Mike Bliss, Clint Bowyer, Landon Cassill, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., David Gilliland, Denny Hamlin, Timmy Hill, Travis Kvapil, Kyle Larson, Michael McDowell, Joe Nemechek, Johnny Sauter, Morgan Shepherd, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex, Jr., Ryan Truex, Brian Vickers, Cole Whitt (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) #77-Randy Humphrey Racing, #93-BK Racing (2)
2nd) #11-Joe Gibbs Racing, #14-Stewart-Haas Racing, #15-Michael Waltrip Racing, #21-Wood Brothers Racing, #26-BK Racing, #32-Go FAS Racing, #33-Circle Sport, #38-Front Row Motorsports, #40-Hillman Racing, #42-Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, #43-Richard Petty Motorsports, #47-JTG-Daugherty Racing, #55-Michael Waltrip Racing, #66-Michael Waltrip Racing / Identity Ventures Racing, #78-Furniture Row Racing, #83-BK Racing, #87-Identity Ventures Racing, #88-Hendrick Motorsports, #95-Leavine Family Racing (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Toyota (9)
2nd) Chevrolet, Ford (7)