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Kyle Larson earns spot in NASCAR’s championship race with victory at Las Vegas

Kyle Larson (5) celebrates in Victory Lane after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle Larson used a spectacular mid-race save, got a lightning fast final pit stop from his Hendrick Motorsports crew, then held off Christopher Bell at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway finish line to become the first driver locked into NASCAR’s championship finale.

The 2021 Cup champion earned the first of four spots in the Nov. 5 title-deciding finale with his win in Sunday’s opening race of the round of eight of NASCAR’s playoffs.

“Glad we don’t need to stress in the last two races,” said Larson.

Larson’s fourth win of the season was the most important: Hendrick Motorsports could theoretically coast through the next two weeks and focus mostly on preparing for the finale at Phoenix Raceway. Joey Logano won Las Vegas last year and parlayed the two weeks of prep time into a championship-clinching win at Phoenix.

There won’t be any rest for the No. 5 team, though.

“If we just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to cruise for the next two weeks,’ then you are not operating with the edge that I think you’re going to need to win it in Phoenix,” said crew chief Cliff Daniels. “There’s two more races to win, and the way I see this now is that we’re in the position, we get to play those races to win.”

Larson led 133 laps and beat Bell by 0.082 seconds.

He needed a pretty remarkable save in the second stage when his Chevy wiggled and Larson somehow escaped with only denting the rear corner of the car into the wall. It was a save that Daniels believes only Larson could pull off.

“I just tried to take a deep breath and really forget about that as quickly as possible and get refocused,” Larson said.

It kept him in contention and Larson claimed the lead on pit road when his crew had the fastest stop following a caution with 57 laps remaining. Bell had control of the race at that point but Larson was first off pit road.

Bell, who started on the pole in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, was third after the pit stop. Passing seemed particularly difficult Sunday at Las Vegas, and Bell was sort of stuck following Larson for the rest of the race.

But he made a run at Larson over the final handful of laps, closing the gap each time by the flagstand. As they closed in on the checkered flag, Bell gave it one furious push inside of Larson but couldn’t beat him to the line.

“I don’t know what else I could have done,” a dejected Bell said. “I feel like that was my moment. That was my moment to make the final four and didn’t capture it. It would have been nice to lock in.”

Larson praised Bell, his longtime sprint car rival, for racing him cleanly to the finish line.

“I could see him coming in my mirror, for sure,” Larson said of Bell’s closing rate. “Thankfully, Christopher always races extremely clean. Could have got crazier than it did coming to the start/finish line. Thank you to him for racing with respect there.”

Kyle Busch, a Las Vegas native, finished third in a Chevrolet. He was followed by Brad Keselowski in a Ford and Ross Chastain in a Chevrolet. All three were eliminated from the playoffs last Sunday at Charlotte.

The next five spots went to playoff drivers as Ryan Blaney was sixth for Team Penske but was disqualified after the race because the left front shock on his Ford did not meet the overall specified length.

That moved Larson teammate William Byron to sixth and he was followed by Tyler Reddick in a Toyota for 23XI Racing, JGR drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Chris Buescher, in a Ford for RFK Racing, was the lowest-finishing playoff driver in 10th.

Blaney dropped to last in the race.

A win in any of the three playoff races this round earns an automatic berth into the championship finale. The remaining slots are filled based on the points standings.

Bell, Reddick, Blaney and Buescher are the four drivers below the cutline.

LARSON’S BUSY WEEK

The win capped a week for Larson in which he won a sprint car championship and began his preparations for next year’s Indianapolis 500. Larson plans to run both the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 next May and on Thursday completed the rookie orientation program at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He’s entering the Indy 500 in a joint entry between Hendrick Motorsports and McLaren and with boss Rick Hendrick looking on, Larson turned 72 laps with a fast lap of 217.898 mph.

Before he got to Indy, Larson on Tuesday night won the inaugural High Limit Sprint Car Series championship at Lincoln Park Speedway in Greencastle, Indiana. Larson founded the series with his brother-in-law Brad Sweet, the four-time World of Outlaws Series champion.

“It’s been a memorable week, maybe a little crazier than normal, but my weeks are usually crazy,” Larson said.

TRUEX CONTINUES TO STRUGGLE

Truex won the regular season title but has had a terrible playoffs and is barely hanging on to a shot to win a second Cup title.

His ninth-place finish Sunday was his best through seven playoff races. Prior to Las Vegas, he didn’t finish higher than 17th in the first six playoff races.

He started the day slumping with seven consecutive finishes outside the top 15, his worst streak since 2009, and Truex at first seemed destined to another miserable race.

Truex said he struggled with his Toyota in traffic, and when a strategy not to pit at the end of the first stage with the rest of the field backfired, he found himself mired deep in the field.

“It was just trying to figure out how to minimize the damage,” Truex said. “It was an uphill battle, but luckily at the end, we were able to have a couple of better restarts and at least maintain, and then work our way forward from there. All-in-all, it was OK.”

UP NEXT

NASCAR goes to Homestead-Miami Speedway next Sunday for the middle race in the round of eight. Larson is the defending race winner.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing