CONCORD, N.C. – Kyle Larson finally found the good luck he’d been hoping for all weekend long during the final moments of the Bank of America ROVAL 400, even if it didn’t appear that way at first.
In a span of six laps on Sunday afternoon, Larson went from contending for the win and comfortably in the playoffs, to crashing and outside the playoffs, to blowing a tire on the final lap but making a miraculous and fortuitous pass of Jeffrey Earnhardt to advance to the round of 12.
Talk about a roller-coaster of emotions and a wild ending to the first elimination of the postseason.
Larson dominated the first stage after taking the early lead from polesitter Kurt Busch, but got shuffled out of the frontrunners due to pit strategy in the second stage on Sunday and didn’t find his way back into contention until after halfway, when he cycled back towards the front alongside Brad Keselowski.
He then waged a thrilling duel for the lead with Keselowski amid furious fuel saving, crossing the 2012 champion over through the infield section of the 17-turn, 2.28-mile circuit, only to lose the lead again just as quickly when Keselowski passed him back.
After that scrap, the duo rode in formation and saved gas while pulling away from the rest of their pursuers by more than 15 seconds, only to see that advantage erased by a late spin by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and subsequent caution flag with eight laps left.
The next green-flag restart saw Larson’s playoff hopes appear to unravel. He, along with race leader Keselowski, overdrove into turn one and slammed into the tire barriers. Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet sustained heave front-end damage and his shot and continuing on in the postseason appeared bleak.
However, a Herculean effort by Larson’s crew following a 14-minute red flag period saw the car repaired just enough to be able to continue onward and make the final three laps.
Even still, starting the final lap of the race, Larson’s wounded machine didn’t have pace and he found himself outside the top 20, one point below the cut line and on the brink of elimination in round one.
Then, Larson got his miracle. Daniel Hemric and Jeffrey Earnhardt tangled coming towards the finish and Earnhardt’s car lurched to a near-halt just yards from the finish line. It was the one position he needed.
Not that it was easy, mind you. Larson blew a right-front tire coming through turns three and four of the NASCAR oval on that final lap, pounding the wall and barely able to turn his car down into the final chicane on the frontstretch.
Somehow, though, the car responded how Larson needed it to and even as he smacked the outside wall again coming off turn 17, he was able to beat Earnhardt to the finish line for 25th, moving into a three-way tie for 11th in the playoff standings as a result.
Combined with a second-place finish at Las Vegas and Jimmie Johnson’s last-ditch effort for the win on Sunday gone wrong, it was just enough.
Larson climbed out on pit road stunned, but still in the title hunt.
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