Sunday, May 22, 2022

CUP: Kyle Larson the first All-Star retiree since 2019

PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

Kyle Larson finished last in Sunday’s All-Star Race at the Texas Motor Speedway when his #5 Chevrolet was involved in a single-car crash after 36 of 140 laps.

Larson, the defending series champion, secured his starting spot with an incredible ten-win season that began in the third round of the year at Las Vegas. Larson, crew chief Cliff Daniels, and the Hendrick Motorsports crew have made the adjustment to NASCAR’s NextGen car, taking the checkered flag just two races into the season at the Auto Club Speedway. The year since has been rather hot-and-cold, racking up six Top Fives, but also four DNFs, most recently a blown engine on a fast Tim Richmond “throwback” scheme in Darlington that left him last.

On Saturday evening, Larson turned the second-fastest lap behind Denny Hamlin, then made the eight-car cut in single-car qualifying to make it into the “knock-out” shootout for the pole. There would be three rounds with the top eight matched head-to-head in four groups of two. A drag-race start, four-tire stop, and single lap at speed would decide each winner. Third in line and paired with Kurt Busch, Larson prevailed in Round 1, only to stall his car in Round 2. Larson thus secured 4th while Kyle Busch, who bested Larson in Round 2, went on to beat Ryan Blaney for the pole.

Starting 24th and last was “fan vote” winner Erik Jones in the #43 Focus Factor Chevrolet, though he’d be joined at the back by 20th-place starter Alex Bowman, his #48 Ally Chevrolet slowest in single-car qualifying, for unapproved adjustments. “Obviously, we can only go forward from here,” said Bowman’s crew over the radio.

When the race started, Bowman’s car was last across the stripe, 1.911 seconds back of the lead with Jones now 22nd, just ahead of All-Star Open Segment 3 winner Daniel Suarez in the #99 Freeway Insurance Chevrolet. Bowman and Suarez dropped Jones to last by the end of Lap 1, while Jones cleared Chris Buescher’s #17 Fastenal Ford by the start of Lap 3. Buesher, the winner of Open Segment 2, remained locked in a side-by-side battle with Jones, just 0.056 behind the #43 to start Lap 4. Jones shook of Buescher the next time by, but the #17 stayed within two-tenths of his competitor.

On Lap 8, Michael McDowell had slipped to 23rd in his #34 WISE-EV Ford, and Buescher set to work trying to pass him. The pair were 0.014 apart in a side-by-side battle at the stripe, then remained just 0.072 apart two laps later. McDowell finally inched ahead the next time by as McDowell now dropped Brad Keselowski to 23rd in his #6 Kohler Generators Ford. Buescher couldn’t quite catch his teammate, though Keselowski now found himself locked in a side-by-side battle with Jones, the pair seven-thousandths apart on Lap 17. Buescher steadily lost ground to 0.477 back of Keselowski on Lap 20 while Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., the Open Segment 1 winner, dropped to 23rd in the #47 Kroger / Viva Towels Chevrolet. On Lap 25, just before the end of the opening sage, Jones dropped to last, 1.595 back of Buescher, who then caught Stenhouse for 23rd. This put the #43 back where he started when the stage ended.

Under the ensuing caution, Jones endured a lengthy stop along with Kevin Harvick, whose crew raise the hood of the #4 #BuschBacon Ford. When Stage 2 began on Lap 26, McDowell slipped to last spot 3.061 seconds back of the lead, but now neck-and-neck with Bubba Wallace in the #23 Dr. Pepper Dark Berry Toyota. The next time by, Wallace dropped 16.1 seconds back of the lead and 10.844 back of McDowell. The #23 had made an unscheduled stop for a loose right-front wheel on his previous stop, putting him a lap down. Wallace remained in last, hoping for a quick caution to earn the Lucky Dog, when trouble broke out up front.

On Lap 35, Kyle Larson was running 2nd to a dominant Kyle Busch. Heading through Turns 3 and 4, the right-front tire blew on Larson’s car, putting him hard into the outside wall. Larson came off the fence and drove through the grass, revealing significant damage to the passenger side of his Chevrolet as he pulled into his pit stall. The driver climbed out under his own power, done for the day. Cliff Daniels had the tow truck bring the car to their garage stall, Stall 21, so the crew could ready the car for loading on the hauler. Wallace got the Lucky Dog under the caution, dropping Larson to last in the process.

On the ensuing restart, another tire went down, triggering another series of hard hits. This time, it was race leader Kyle Busch, whose #18 M&M’s Crunchy Cookie Toyota slowed off Turn 4 and pulled to the inside of the quad-oval. Closing fast behind was Ross Chastain, who elected the inside lane in his #1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet. Chastain struck Busch’s car in the left-rear, sending him straight up the track into Chase Elliott’s #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet. Elliott spun off Chastain’s car into the outside wall, knocking the front-end geometry out of alignment. All three drivers climbed from their cars, done for the night. Erik Jones rounded out the Bottom Five after he spun and backed into the outside wall off Turn 4 while running 14th.

*This marked the third time the #5 has finished last in the All-Star Race. The first occurrence was in the inaugural on May 25, 1985, when Geoffrey Bodine’s #5 Levi Garrett Chevrolet lost the engine after 14 laps. The most recent occurrence was May 21, 1994, when Terry Labonte had a transmission failure after 36 laps in his #5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet.
*Larson is the first driver to fail to finish on the lead lap under power in an All-Star Race since 2019.

24) #5-Kyle Larson / 36 laps / crash
23) #9-Chase Elliott / 47 laps / crash
22) #1-Ross Chastain / 47 laps / crash
21) #18-Kyle Busch / 47 laps / crash
20) #43-Erik Jones / 103 laps / crash

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