The Kyle Larson redemption tour, otherwise known as the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series, rolled through the Lone Star State today as Larson won the annual All-Star Race in its first-ever running at Texas Motor Speedway. Larson, who this time last year looked to be finished in the sport after a racial epithet incident for which he has made major amends, won in thrilling fashion over Brad Keselowski and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott in an action-packed final round of stock car racing at its finest.
The event started with the All-Star Open, its field made up of those drivers who did not automatically qualify for the main event. In the pre-stage (now called round) racing days, the winner of this race went into the actual All-Star race, but now each round winner qualifies. The Open was divided into three rounds, the first two of twenty lap duration and the third ten laps.
The track temperature was a mild 145 degrees at the beginning of the first round. Josh Reddick, who started on the pole, was almost immediately passed by Chris Buescher for the lead. As it turned out, it was too quickly, as NASCAR called Buescher for jumping the start and ordered him to do a pass-through (drive through pit road at reduced speed) penalty. On the fourth lap Bubba Wallace, who was running fourth at the time, spun out in turn two, bringing out the race’s first caution.
The round resumed with twelve laps to go. Reddick maintained his lead, followed closely by Chase Briscoe. On the subsequent lap Buescher, who was back in the pack, spun out with some assistance from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., bringing out a caution. It would not be the last.
The green flag once again flew in the blistering Texas breeze with seven laps to go. It didn’t fly long, as shortly thereafter Erik Jones and Briscoe entered turn three side by side. Briscoe, on the inside, lost control and spun out, damaging his car and Daniel Suarez’ who was in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time. Caution (again).
The round resumed with two laps to go. Reddick maintained his lead for a moment, but was overtaken by Ross Chastain. The laps actually went without incident as Chastain, who had started the round last due to issues with pre-race car inspection, held on for the win, thereby moving into the big race.
The second round started with Reddick in the lead. Matt DiBenedetto and Aric Almirola provided most of the round’s excitement as they dueled for position. Almirola took over second with six laps to go, but could never overtake Reddick as he took the second round.
The final round started with Almirola and DiBenedetto on the front row. Almirola took the lead coming out of turn four of the first lap and never looked back as he won going away. Buescher charged up to third, but could advance no further.
With Chastain, Reddick, and Almirola racing their way in, and DiBenedetto getting in on the fan vote, the All-Star field was set. The field was set by random draw, Larson starting on the pole much to the lament of many given how as of late he has been on a tear, winning the last two races at Charlotte and Sonoma.
The All-Star Race format was, in a word, convoluted. The race was divided into five rounds. The first three rounds were fifteen laps each. After the first round, the top twelve cars inverted their position. Following the second round, the entire field, or at least those on the lead lap, inverted. After the third round, the first nine finishers were inverted. The fifth round starting order was determined by taking each car’s finishing order in the first four rounds and adding them, with the lowest number running up front; for example, if a driver were to have won each of the first four rounds their score would be four. The sixth and final round was ten laps long; the starting field set by how the preceding round ended.
The first round was briefly uneventful until Christopher Bell spun one lap into the event. Kyle Busch took the lead with thirteen laps left. Larson regained the lead from Busch with nine laps to go, William Byron taking second from Busch with six laps remaining. Busch’s car was not getting the front end grip he needed to compete for the lead. Meanwhile, Chastain raced through the field, finishing the round in ninth place after starting near the rear of the field. The first twelve cars inverted position for the second round, this putting Ryan Blaney in front.
The second round nearly started with unmitigated disaster, as early on Chastain bumped Blaney from behind, thus necessitating a massive save by Blaney that doubtless also saved the vast majority of the field. Aside from this, the round was uneventful, with Blaney winning and Keselowski finishing second.
Almirola started the third round up front, DiBenedetto alongside. DiBenedetto swiftly assumed the lead and held it until nine laps left when Alex Bowman overtook him. Bowman held on easily for the win. Byron finished ninth, therefore started the next round on the pole.
The fourth round was uneventful, with Byron winning and Larson finishing a close second. Byron, with the lowest aggregate number in the running order of the first four rounds, won the pole position for the fifth round.
The fifth round was thirty laps, with a mandatory four-tire pit stop in the mix; the team pulling off the fastest stop winning a tidy $100,000 (Elliott’s team won). Different teams tried different pit strategy, coming in on different laps. Some drivers pushed it too hard; Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon were both nabbed for pit road speed violations.
The four Hendrick Motorsports drivers (Byron, Larson, Elliott, and Bowman) came in to pit together with fourteen laps to go. Things became interesting with twelve laps left in the round when Chastain was spun by Ryan Newman. The end result was Keselowski assuming the lead, with Elliott second. Keselowski gamely held on at the restart, but was overwhelmed by Elliott and teammates with nine laps left in the round. Elliott held off Byron for the round win, with Larson finishing third.
At long last the final round came, a ten lap shootout. It lived up to expectations, proving you do not need wrecks to have exciting racing. Elliott, Keselowski, and Larson put on a show of shows, with daring passes missing each other by mere molecules. Larson eventually seized the lead, and despite Keselowski’s masterful best efforts, it wasn’t enough as Larson took the win, his second All-Star Race triumph.
While mid-season momentum does not assure anything other than a spot in the championship run, right now Larson is clearly NASCAR’s top dog. Whether he can maintain this run remains to be seen, but what is undeniable is that Larson’s story shows the power of embracing forgiveness instead of cancel culture.