Larson had to hold off multiple contenders over six restarts in the final 60 laps and edged his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron by .459 seconds at the checkered flag to earn his series-leading eighth win of the 2021 season.
This win in the semifinal round of the playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway locks Larson into the Championship 4 at Phoenix, regardless of where he finishes in the next two races.
Larson, 28, has never previously had the opportunity to compete for the series title under NASCAR’s playoff format.
The win is the 14th of Larson’s career and first at Texas.
“Yeah, this is unreal,” Larson said. “I knew we had a good shot to win today. Our car was amazing – that is probably the best 550hp package intermediate car we’ve had all year. Thanks to everyone at this No. 5 team.
“This is so cool. We get to race for a championship. This is crazy.”
Asked about hanging on during seven restarts in the final stage, Larson said, “I got good pushes from behind, really. Thankfully, I was just barely able to clear William every time into (Turn) 1 and not have to fight off of (Turn) 2.
“It was awesome. Hopefully, we can still get some more wins the rest of the year.”
Larson said despite being locked into the Championship, he does not intend to “lose focus” on winning at either Kansas or Martinsville.
“I love the West Coast. I love Phoenix,” he said. “We’ve always been fast there. I think we should have a good shot. Our team has been so strong. Might as well close it out now.”
Although Larson was able to stay clear of the carnage, the final 34 laps saw three playoff contenders – Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin – knocked out of contention for the win and two of them – Logano and Truex – sent to the garage.
Christopher Bell ended up finishing third in the race, Brad Keselowski was fourth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-five.
Completing the top-10 were Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Tyler Reddick and Daniel Suarez.
With races at Kansas and Martinsville, Va., remaining in the semifinal round, the four drivers in the playoff standings in danger of missing out at a chance to compete for the championship are Elliott, Keselowski, Truex and Logano.
Following the break between Stages 2 and 3, the lead-lap cars all pit with Larson the first off pit road. Suarez was penalized for speeding on pit road during his stop and had to restart from the rear of the field.
The race resumed on Lap 217 with Larson out front, followed by Byron, Keselowski, Blaney and Kurt Busch.
With 75 laps remaining, Larson had a 2.4-second lead over Byron as Keselowski remained in third.
Dillon was among the first cars to hit pit road for a green flag stop with 65 laps remaining in the race, right at the window for making it to the end of the race on fuel.
Debris on the backstretch from a blown tire on Chase Briscoe’s No. 14 Ford brought out a caution on Lap 276.
The lead-lap cars all pit with Larson the first off pit road. On the restart on Lap 281, Larson was followed by Byron, Keselowski, Reddick and Hamlin.
NASCAR put out a caution on Lap 300 for possible fluid in Turn 2 after Logano’s No. 22 Ford appeared to lose its engine.
Several of the lead-lap cars pit for new tires but Larson remained on the track and in the lead. When the race returned to green on Lap 305, Larson was followed by Byron and Keselowski.
Shortly after the restart, Kyle Busch and Chris Buescher made contact and Anthony Alfredo got turned by Briscoe, which sent Alfredo into the wall.
Alfredo’s No. 38 Ford erupted in flames, but the driver was able to quickly exit the car as the race was immediately placed under a red flag for track cleanup.
After a nearly 12-minute delay, the race returned to caution. The race returned to green with 25 laps to go and Larson still out front.
With 23 laps to go, Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota developed a tire rub after racing three-wide with Blaney and Harvick but he remained on the track for the time being.
On Lap 314, Hamlin eventually spun from the tire going flat and nosed into the inside wall to bring out the ninth caution of the race.
When the race resumed with 16 laps to go, Larson was out front and followed by Reddick, Byron, Keselowski and Harvick.
Martin Truex wrecked on Lap 320 after what appeared to be contact from Suarez to bring out the 10th caution. Truex’s No. 19 Toyota was seriously damaged, taking him out of contention for the race win.
The race returned to green with nine laps to go and Larson still in command.
On Lap 328, Briscoe went up the track into the path of Buescher, Buescher got sideways and hit the nose of Hamlin’s No. 11 to bring out yet another caution.
The race returned to green with two laps remaining and Larson out front.
Larson held off a last-lap charge from Byron by .047 seconds to take the Stage 2 win.
Blaney was third, Harvick fourth and Keselowski completed the top-five.
Following the break between Stages 1 and 2, the lead-lap cars pit with Kyle Busch the first off pit road. On the restart on Lap 113, Kyle Busch was followed by Larson and Kurt Busch.
Larson powered around Kyle Busch and back into the lead on Lap 117 as his teammate, Byron, moved into second.
With 70 laps remaining in the stage, Larson held a 1.3-second lead over Byron with Kyle Busch in third.
On Lap 154, Elliott was the first to make a green-flag pit stop, in part because he developed a vibration on his No. 9 Chevrolet. After the stop, his team discovered his right-front tire was coming apart.
Austin Dillon and Logano soon followed, making their respective stops for tires and fuel to reach the finish of the stage.
Debris on the backstretch brought out a caution on Lap 166 and shook up the cycle of green flag stops. Most of the lead-lap cars pit with Larson the first off pit road.
On the restart on Lap 171, Larson led the way followed by Kyle Busch and Byron.
With 30 laps remaining in the stage, Larson was trying to hold off Byron for the lead as Blaney ran third.
With 10 laps to go, Elliott reported that he feared he was developing issues with his right-front tire again but didn’t think it required him to pit.
Kyle Busch stretched his fuel to hold off Blaney for the Stage 1 win, his seventh of the 2021 season.
Larson was third, Kurt Busch fourth and Byron rounded out the top-five.
Larson started on the pole and remained out front until NASCAR’s scheduled competition caution on Lap 27 to allow teams to check tire wear.
All the lead-lap cars pit with Byron the first off pit road thanks to a two-tire stop. Kyle Busch was penalized for speeding on pit road and had to restart from the rear of the field.
On the restart on Lap 31, Byron led the way followed by Truex, Reddick and Bell.
Bubba Wallace got loose off Turn 2 while the field went three-wide after the restart and triggered a multi-car crash on the backstretch that collected more than a dozen cars.
Among those collected were Alex Bowman, Ross Chastain, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, Cole Custer and Ryan Newman.
“I really don’t even know (what happened). Everybody just started wrecking,” Preece said. “It’s stupid early.”
The race resumed on Lap 40 with Byron out front followed by Truex, Reddick and Matt DiBenedetto.
Byron and Truex traded the lead on the restart with Byron finally clearing for the top stop on Lap 41.
With 40 laps remaining in the first stage, Byron had built a 1.5-second lead over Reddick as Larson moved into third.
Larson got around Reddick to take over the second spot with 30 laps to go.
In Turn 3 on Lap 83, Larson went to the inside of Byron and reclaimed the lead.
With 15 laps to go, several cars that could not make it to the finish of the stage on fuel decided to pit for a splash of fuel including Dillon, Larson, Byron and Hamlin. That eventually turned the lead over to Kyle Busch on Lap 97.
Elliott, Briscoe and Corey LaJoie were among five cars that had to start the race from the rear of the field due to multiple pre-race inspection failures. Bowman and Justin Haley started from the rear due to unapproved adjustments.