Kyle Larson Proves Just How Much Bubba Wallace Affected Last Year’s NASCAR Championship
Kyle Larson nearly won the NASCAR Cup Series race this past Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And in doing so, he proved just how differently the 2022 championship might have played out had he not been intentionally eliminated early in the playoff race at the same track.
Larson had a stellar No. 5 Chevrolet in this year’s first Cup Series visit to the 1.5-mile facility. He led 63 laps, which were second to only his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron in the No. 24 machine. Byron ultimately won the race, but Larson had led 37 consecutive circuits until a caution with two laps to go sent the race into overtime and forced crew chiefs to make a tire strategy call.
All of the leaders except Martin Truex Jr. came to pit road for at least two tires. Byron beat Larson out of the pits, so he was able to line up alongside Truex on the restart, while Larson was stuck behind Truex in the second row. Predictably, Byron was able to jump out to the lead, and Larson was unable to catch him.
Byron had the best car of the day with a race-high 176 laps led in a 271-lap event, but Larson’s runner-up result and near-miss at a victory provided an interesting opening to look at an alternative ending to the season a year ago.
Kyle Larson’s 2022 playoff race at Las Vegas ended early on purpose
Larson was already eliminated from the playoffs by the time the Cup Series returned to Las Vegas for the seventh race of the postseason and first in the Round of 8. Larson missed the eighth and final spot to advance by only two points after late-race issues the week before at the Charlotte Roval led to a 35th-place finish.
He then went to Las Vegas and qualified 14th but had worked his way up to fifth by Lap 94 early in Stage 2. He admittedly exited high out of Turn 4 on that lap and squeezed Bubba Wallace into the outside wall. Wallace then dramatically turned left to intentionally spin Larson into the wall. Wallace walked down the frontstretch to confront Larson, and the two exchanged words while Wallace shoved Larson a few times.
The wreck also collected Christopher Bell, who was still championship-eligible at that point. Bell finished 34th, which necessitated his last-gasp win two weeks later at Martinsville Speedway to qualify for his first Championship 4, but that was hardly the only ripple effect of the Wallace-Larson incident.
NASCAR suspended Wallace for the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway that followed Las Vegas, but that did not have any impact on the driver championship scenarios. The opening it gave another playoff driver is possibly one of the most important moments of the 2022 playoffs.
Joey Logano clinched his Championship 4 spot without having to fend off Larson or Christopher Bell
Joey Logano ended up winning the Las Vegas playoff race to clinch his spot in the Championship 4, and he went on to win his second career Cup Series title with a victory in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway. Logano started the Round of 8 in second place in the playoff standings but had only an 11-point cushion above the fifth-place cutoff mark.
Sure, Logano and his No. 22 team would have likely prepared differently for the final two races of the Round of 8 if he had not won at Las Vegas, but the 18th- and sixth-place finishes he recorded might not have been enough to get him to the Championship 4 in the first place.
Larson had also finished second in the series’ first trip to Las Vegas for the third race of the year during an event that played out rather similarly to the 2023 edition of the early season Las Vegas event.
He clearly had a car capable of contending for the win in the Las Vegas playoff race, given his nine-position improvement early in the race and his results in the two surrounding races at Las Vegas.
His 10.9 career average finishing position at the track ranks third among active drivers. And he had scored a top-10 finish in eight of his nine starts at Las Vegas prior to the issue with Wallace, including a win in the March of 2021, which was also his championship season.
Larson came back to win at Homestead after being wrecked out by Wallace the week before, so no driver would have clinched a spot in the Championship 4 by the time the series headed to Martinsville. The finish to the Martinsville event was wild anyway, but perhaps Denny Hamlin would have been in position to snag one of the four spots rather than Logano.
Also, Bell was running eighth at the time of the Bubba Wallace-Kyle Larson wreck. He had won the pole award at the March race earlier in the season, so perhaps he could’ve won that race and not have to face a win-or-go-home situation at Martinsville.
Seemingly endless alternative scenarios exist about how the 2022 playoffs could have ended, but Logano might have a non-playoff driver’s moment of rage to thank for the opportunity to become a two-time Cup Series champion.