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Larson 1st driver in NASCAR’s championship race

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Larson 1st driver in NASCAR’s championship race

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LAS VEGAS — Kyle Larson edged Christopher Bell at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway finish line to become the first driver locked into NASCAR’s championship race.

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.

“This is really cool to get to race in the championship in a few weeks,” said Larson. “Glad we don’t need to stress in the last two races.”

Larson claimed the lead on pit road when his Hendrick Motorsports crew had the fastest stop following a caution with 57 laps remaining. Bell had control of the race at that point, but the leaders went in for a service stop, and Larson in his Chevrolet 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 Larson to the line.

Larson’s fourth win of the season was the most important: Hendrick Motorsports can now coast through the next two weeks and focus 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.

“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.”

Larson led 133 laps and beat Bell by 0.082 seconds.

“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.”

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 in a Ford from Team Penske, and followed by Larson teammate William Byron, 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 11th.

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.

The win capped a week for Larson in which he 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.

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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