In the last few laps of Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway, tears began to well up in Kyle Larson’s eyes.
When Larson subsequently took the checkered flag to win the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of his career, the emotion was all but overwhelming—and for good reason.
The victory came in Larson’s 99th start in the series, long after most observers expected Larson to record his first win. It also broke a 99-race drought for Chip Ganassi Racing, dating to Jamie McMurray’s victory at Talladega in October 2013.
With the triumph, Larson earned a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time in his career, moving winless Ryan Newman 15 points out of the last Chase-eligible position with two races left in the regular season.
With Brett Moffitt winning in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Michigan and Michael McDowell prevailing in the NASCAR XFINITY Series at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.—both on Saturday—Larson’s triumph capped the first weekend in NASCAR history that produced first-time winners in all three national series.
It also marked the first time a graduate of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity and NASCAR Next programs has reached Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
The emotions of the moment, however, were magnified by the recent death at age 27 of Bryan Clauson, who was fatally injured in a midget car accident on Aug. 6 at The Bellville Midget Nationals in Belleville, Kan. Larson came to NASCAR from open-wheel racing, and he and Clauson were close friends.
“Parked it” yelled Larson after he took the checkered flag, echoing Clauson’s signature victory cry. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet followed with a celebratory burnout that left a trail of rubber across all over Victory Lane.
Larson then exited his car, took the checkered flag from the flag man and leapt into the arms of his fueler, who had run out into the infield to congratulate his driver.
“I was teared-up that whole last few laps, because I could just feel it,” Larson said. “It was finally going to be it. This one is for the Clauson family. We really miss Bryan. We’re going to miss him. We parked it for him, so that’s really cool.
“We had a lot of work to do for that first third of the race, and got it done. Thanks to (sponsor) Target. Thanks to everyone on this team. (Crew chief) Chad (Johnston) and the pit crew and everybody. We messed up that last stop but we made it back.”
In fact, Larson lost the lead to race runner-up Chase Elliott when both drivers made their final pit stops under green on Lap 156 of 200. Elliott beat Larson out of the pits by a half car-length and began to pull away. But a caution on Lap 187 because of Michael Annett’s blown right front tire gave Larson the chance he needed.
With a hard push from third-place finisher Brad Keselowski, Larson took the lead on the final restart on Lap 192, as Elliott spun his tires and lost momentum in the outside lane. Larson crossed the finish line with a 1.478-second advantage over Elliott, who passed Keselowski for the second spot on Lap 193.
Still seeking his first victory in his rookie season, Elliott had an opportunity to win at Michigan in June but likewise fell victim to a late restart.
“Bummer again here,” said Elliott, making no attempt to hide his disappointment. “I hate to let my guys down is the biggest thing. For the second time, this has happened. I made a mistake early on in the race. I asked my guys to bail me out (on the final pit stop), and they did. Unfortunately, I didn’t do my part again.
“That’s a couple races in a row in just a few short months here at this place we had a really good car, had an opportunity. That’s one thing I try really hard to do is make the most of opportunities when they’re presented. Obviously I didn’t do a very good job of that here both trips. Need to do my restarts a little better. That’s obviously not a strong point, at least here at Michigan.”
The second-place finish, however, solidified Elliott’s position relative to the Chase. He’s currently 11th in the standings, highest among drivers without a victory and 27 points ahead of Newman, who finished 17th on Sunday.
Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Blaney finished fourth, holding off fifth-place Kevin Harvick and sixth-place Jimmie Johnson over the final nine-lap run.
Check out the unofficial results of the Pure Michigan 400.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!