NASCAR: The championship is already Kyle Larson's to lose

It may be a long season, but this year's NASCAR Cup Series championship is already Kyle Larson's to lose.

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR / Chris Graythen/GettyImages

Hendrick Motorsports' Kyle Larson, a heavy favorite to win Sunday afternoon's NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway heading into the weekend, did what absolutely everybody expected him to and dominated the Pennzoil 400 en route to securing his first victory of the 2024 season.

Not that he wouldn't have gotten in anyway, but Larson's win effectively locks him into the 2024 playoffs, as there have never been more than 16 race winners over the course of a 26-race regular season since the current 16-driver playoff format was introduced in 2014.

While it's still a long season ahead, Sunday's race confirmed that this year's championship is already Larson's to lose.

The race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was considered the start of the "real" season, given the fact that the year began with two drafting races -- many times considered "wild card" races -- at Daytona International Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway.

If Larson wrecking in superspeedway races is pretty much a lock, so is him being the driver to beat in most "normal" races, specifically those at typical intermediate tracks such as Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Larson and the No. 5 team can already look ahead to the playoffs, and everything they gain over the final 23 regular season races -- wins, stage wins, playoff points, etc. -- is gravy.

Now it's all about building for the three-race season that is the round of 16, the three-race season that is the round of 12, the three-race season that is the round of 8, and the make-or-break afternoon that is the Championship 4.

Sure, the same can technically be said for every driver who locks into the postseason from now until the regular season finale at Darlington Raceway in early September, but not every driver has the pedigree of Larson.

Winning in the playoffs is what really matters, and Larson has eight such victories in his three most recent playoff appearances.

This isn't a 2018 or even a 2019 Kyle Larson, who would regularly lead a lot of laps and find ways to blow it in the end. It was almost like a running joke that he couldn't actually close out a race.

He led over 1,300 laps in those two seasons and managed a single win, and this was actually during a period when Chip Ganassi Racing were as good as, if not better than, Hendrick Motorsports. The driver who had long been touted as one of the most talented drivers in the world had six total wins in his first seven seasons in the sport.

No; this is a Kyle Larson who has proven that he is one of the most talented drivers in the world and has regularly shown it since arriving at Hendrick Motorsports as Jimmie Johnson's replacement in 2021.

And no, I don't care that Tyler Reddick closed the gap to Larson in the closing laps on Sunday. You're fooling yourself if you think he had a chance to win that race. The same situation unfolded in stage one and stage two, and Larson held him off. Sunday's result was a foregone conclusion long before the checkered flag.

Has he won every race? Of course not, but don't confuse "choking" with "losing" in a series with as much parity as the NASCAR Cup Series. He has learned the art of execution and has established himself as the series' most potent driver.

Then there is the race team to consider, and Larson drives for the best. Hendrick Motorsports themselves have been the team to beat for the last five seasons, having won the overall championship, the unofficial points title, or both, in every year since 2020.

Chase Elliott was effectively the third driver in the Kevin Harvick vs. Denny Hamlin battle in 2020, and while he didn't win as many races as they did, his title was about so much more than getting "hot at the right time" like he did in the season's final two races.

Misfortune earlier in the season cost him at least three wins, with the Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500, and the second spring Darlington Raceway race coming to mind as just a handful of the obvious ones.

Larson won 10 races, the most since Johnson in 2007, in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports 2021, and that number also could have been more. He would have had a four-race winning streak if not for a last-lap tire failure at Pocono Raceway, which would have been the first since Johnson in 2007. No other driver even won more than four races that whole season.

If anybody other than Larson would have won the championship, the playoff format (specifically the single-race title format) would have been questioned more than it has ever been. And believe it or not, it almost didn't happen; he basically ended up needing a clutch pit stop at Phoenix Raceway to avoid elimination.

Then in the Next Gen car's first season in 2022, Elliott led the sport in most major statistical categories, including total points, laps led, wins, and average finish. Larson's "down" year still produced three wins.

In 2023, William Byron did the same, but with top 10 finishes instead of laps led. He also co-led the series in top five finishes with Larson, and he led in total points despite being hit with a 60-point penalty.

Like they did in 2021, Rick Hendrick's team sent two drivers to the Championship 4, and in another "down" year, Larson was one of those drivers, advancing with four wins -- plus a few other races that should have been his.

In 2022 and 2023, Team Penske and Ford managed to win the championship with strong runs at Phoenix Raceway in the Championship 4 race by Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, respectively. So Larson or even Hendrick Motorsports winning in 2024 is by no means a lock, again, because of how the playoff format is set up.

But at this point, you almost have to treat Larson, crew chief Cliff Daniels, and the No. 5 team like Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Nothing else matters in the regular season. It's all about performing when it counts, and you're going to end up needing to rely on somebody to get hot at the right time to have a chance to beat him.

Simply knowing how to win is the most underrated part of any sport, and they have that down. They just have to wait until the fall to prove it.

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Phoenix Raceway is scheduled to host the next race on the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series schedule this Sunday, March 10. The Shriners Children's 500 is set to be broadcast live on Fox beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET. Start a free trial of FuboTV and don't miss it!