NASCAR: Larson steals win in final tuneup before Chase

The Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Kyle Larson and his Chip Ganassi Racing team needed a break, and it came with two laps to go.

Running second to a dominant Martin Truex Jr. and itching for fresh tires and a shot at victory in overtime, Larson got it when Derrike Cope’s car hit the wall, bringing out the seventh yellow flag of the night. Larson grabbed the lead on pit road and sailed to the victory.

“I guess we stole the win, I guess you could say, or our pit crew, I felt like, stole the win because they got me off as the leader,” Larson said.

The victory was his fourth of the season, tying Truex for the most this year.

“I’m really pumped for the playoffs, we’ve got a really good shot at the championship,” Larson said. “I’ve got the greatest team out here and definitely the best pit crew.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was officially eliminated from the playoffs with a 13th-place finish. He’s retiring at the end of the season, and has never won a Cup title. Earnhardt stayed out during late green-flag pit stops, briefly assuming the lead with 66 laps to go, but the caution that could have made the strategy pay off never came.

Truex will still start the 10-race playoff stretch as the favorite to win the championship because he earned the most bonus points during the regular season. He and his Furniture Row Racing team were presented with the regular-season championship trophy.

Chaos erupted with 140 laps remaining because an ambulance clogged the entrance to pit road as cars headed to their stalls. When traffic bottlenecked, Matt Kenseth ran into the car in front of him, and his contending car was knocked out with a crumpled hood.

“I saw an ambulance sitting there,” Kenseth said. “It was an accordion effect and I just couldn’t get stopped.”

The incident could have knocked Kenseth out of the playoffs had there been a first-time winner, but Larson fixed that, allowing Kenseth, Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray to make the 16-driver field as the only non-winners.

Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer, both needing a victory to advance, also suffered damage in the ambulance incident. Logano ran in the top 10 for much of the night, and Bowyer got up into the mix a few times, but Logano’s hope to strike lightning never quite materialized.

Logano finished second, and Bowyer was 24th.

UP NEXT: The opening round of the 10-race playoffs Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. There will be 16 drivers at the start of the playoffs, and the field will be cut by four after the third race of the series.