Kyle Larson grabbed the brass ring Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, winning the Pure Michigan 400 and securing a guaranteed spot in the 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver came to Michigan’s Irish Hills with his back to the proverbial wall, after losing a whopping 59 points to the Chase cutoff in the previous two weeks. A 29th-place finish on the Watkins Glen road course and a 24th the following week at Bristol put Larson on the hot seat, with many railbirds pointing to Michigan as his last realistic chance to earn a berth in the 2016 Chase.
Sunday’s win – his first in 99 career Sprint Cup Series starts -- secured that coveted playoff berth, making the Target Chevrolet driver the 13th different winner of the 2016 Sprint Cup Series season.
“I was teared-up the last few laps,” admitted Larson in Victory Lane. “I could just feel it. This was finally going to be it.”
"This means a lot for me and it means a lot for Kyle," said crew chief Chad Johnston afterward. "We didn't start out this year the way we wanted, but we've found speed throughout the year and the kid's got a ton of talent. I think you'll see more to come from Kyle Larson."
In addition to punching his ticket to the Chase, Larson’s Michigan victory also left a maximum of just three Chase spots available for non-winners, based on points. When Larson jumped off the hot seat Sunday afternoon, at least four other drivers saw their Chase hopes pushed to the brink.
Michigan runner-up Chase Elliott is now 14th on the Chase grid, after losing five spots in the last eight weeks. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t (frustrated),” admitted Elliott, who was in position to win Sunday’s race after a stellar final pit stop, only to surrender the lead to Larson when the green flag flew with just eight laps remaining.
“If I wasn’t, that would mean I didn’t care. I just have to try to take the positives out of it.”
Behind Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray now own the final two spots in the 2016 Chase. McMurray holds a 27-point edge over Ryan Newman, whose 17th-place showing at MIS dropped him out of Chase eligibility for the first time since Dover in mid-May. The Richard Childress Racing driver has a knack for playing the “Winless Chase Qualifier” card, falling just a car length short of an unprecedented Sprint Cup Series championship at Homestead Miami Speedway two years ago, without the benefit of a single checkered flag.
Now, however, Newman is even more of an underdog. With rumors swirling of a post-season departure from RCR in favor of youngster Ty Dillon, the “Rocket Man” needs to recoup half a race-worth of lost championship points in the final two starts of the regular season at Darlington and Richmond.
That’s a tough row to hoe, even for a driver used to making the Chase through the back door.
For Newman, McMurray, Dillon and Elliott, the next 14 days provide absolutely no room for error. One mistake, one botched restart, one mechanical failure will bring an unceremonious end to their 2016 championship hopes.
And another first-time winner at either Darlington or Richmond will throw an already tumultuous Chase grid into absolute turmoil.
There are sleepless nights ahead in the Elliott, Dillon, McMurray and Newman households.