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Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. join Kyle Larson in NASCAR Championship 4

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Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

MARTINSVILLE, VA (Pittsburgh Racing Now) – The NASCAR Championship 4 is set for next weekend at Phoenix Raceway.  Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr will be battling it out with Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson.

Hamlin’s 24th place finish at Martinsville locked him in on points and Truex also locked in on points after fighting to a fourth place finish.

“Certainly I think when you look at the four that are in it, I think it’s the best four that you could possibly put in that race,” said Hamlin. “I think all of them would be deserving champions. Obviously Kyle (Larson) would make the most sense.”

Three Rivers Karting

“I have no idea how we finished fourth,” said Truex, after smacking the wall on lap 471. “I’m going to buy a lottery ticket on the way home.”

Elliott had the dominant car early on the paper clip shaped oval, winning the races first two stages and leading 289-of-501-laps.

“Frankly, I feel like you make it to Phoenix, it’s anybody’s game,” said Elliott, the defending series Champion.  “Getting out there and being a part of the Final 4 is a really big deal. It’s really hard to do. I’m really proud of my team for continuing to push through and battle some adversity. Just keep fighting. I got a great group. I don’t want to go to battle with anybody else.”

“As Denny mentioned, the way we both performed throughout all the season, I’m glad to see us both with the opportunity to race for a championship as well as Chase and everything he’s kind of had to go through throughout this Playoffs, being the past champion,” said Larson.  “I think the four most deserving teams are probably in the Final Four. I’m proud we were able to do it and look forward to battling everybody next week.”

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Kyle Larson wins 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship

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Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

AVONDALE, AZ (Pittsburgh Racing Now) – Everyone loves a comeback story and Kyle Larson’s is complete after winning the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.

Larson was suspended from NASCAR and fired from his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2020 after using a racial slur in an online racing event.  Larson completed mandatory sensitivity training and got a second chance from team owner Rick Hendrick for the 2021 season.  Larson went out and won ten races, including the Championship finale on Sunday.

“It was a little bit of an up-and-down race,” said Larson. “There was moments where I was like, maybe I’ve got a good enough car to win outright and there was times where I was definitely the fourth best car.”

Heading into what turned out to be the final pit stop, Larson was the fourth of the Championship leaders entering pit road but was the first coming off thanks to blistering service by his No. 5 Hendrick Cars Chevrolet.

Larson took the final green flag out front and then held off a hard charging Martin Truex Jr. to the checkered flag.

“For us to come in fourth behind them and come out the leader was a little bit better than I thought we could do,” Larson said about the final stop. “But my pit crew, I’ve got all the belief in the world in them. They proved all season long that they were consistent and consistently fast.
We have such a great team, and they’re a massive part of it, and they’re the reason why we won tonight.”

Three Rivers Karting

A journey from suspended and fired to Cup Series Champion in a span of a little over 18-month is something even Larson didn’t think was possible.

“I’m not sure I ever really thought that I could win a Cup Series championship,” reflected Larson.  “I’ve always thought about winning races, not championships. I didn’t know if I would ever win a Cup Series championship. I can’t say that it was like a dream of mine. Don’t take that the wrong way because that’s not what I’m trying to make it sound like. It’s just it’s so far out there that I never thought that I would do it.”

Larson has done it, giving Hendrick Motorsports back-to-back Championships following Chase Elliott’s title run last year.

“Extremely fortunate and grateful and thankful and so many different other words that can describe how I feel about being there,” said Larson. “Rick Hendrick is one of the greatest human beings I’ve gotten the pleasure to meet and get to know a little bit more this year. He’s got a great group of people running that place, and all of us drivers there are very lucky to be there.”

Larson even took time out to thank the team owner who originally signed him to a driver development deal that eventually led to a ride in the Cup Series.

“I met with every team owner back in 2011, and Chip Ganassi was the only guy, the only team owner to even entertain me racing this car,” recalled Larson. “I met with him for probably 20 minutes, and he signed me up right then after. I owe the world to him. It was nice to see him today and see how happy and at peace I felt like he was with it, with his final event as a team owner. Very thankful for all the years that I spent at Chip Ganassi Racing.”

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Checkered Flag falling on Chip Ganassi’s 20-year run as a NASCAR owner

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Chip Ganassi’s 20-year tenure as a NASCAR team owner is coming to end, for now, Sunday afternoon following the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway.  Ganassi sold the team to Trackhouse Racing’s Justin Marks and Pitbull, more on that later.

Ganassi entered NASCAR in 2001 when he purchased an 80% interest in Felix Sabates’ Team SABCO.  Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates debuted with Sterling Marlin winning his qualifying race at Daytona and finishing 7th in the Daytona 500.

Ganassi and Marlin would get Dodge their first Cup Series race win since their return to NASCAR at Michigan in August, beating Evernham Motorsports to victory lane.  I remember waiting for Ganassi to get to Michigan after the race because his open wheel team had won earlier in the day at Road America.

I’ll never forget how happy Daimler Chrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche was at the victory celebration afterward.  That weekend was the first ‘weekend sweep’ for Ganassi as a team owner.

In 2002 Marlin would lead the season-long Championship points standings for 26-weeks until he was injured in an accident at Kansas.  In retrospect, It was probably Ganassi’s best shot at a Cup Series Championship.

Ganassi brought open wheel stars Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti to NASCAR in 2007 and 2008 respectively, giving both an opportunity to try their hand at racing stock cars. A lack of sponsorship forced Ganassi to shut down the Franchitti team.  Franchitti would move over to Ganassi’s open wheel team for the 2009 season.

Ganassi also introduced long-time sponsor Target to NASCAR.  The Target-Ganassi relationship spanned 25-years and was one of the longest partnerships ever in racing.

I remember sitting down with Ganassi at his Pittsburgh office in January of 2010 and how excited he was that Jamie McMurray was returning to the team.

McMurray rewarded Ganassi’s faith by winning the season-opening Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Couple McMurray’s Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 wins with Dario Franchitti’s 2010 Indianapolis 500 win and a 2011 win at the Rolex 24 Daytona and you have the “Chip Slam”, making Ganassi the first team owner to hold all four titles at one time.

Three Rivers Karting

In 2012 Ganassi signed a young dirt-track racer named Kyle Larson to a driver development contract.  Ganassi would help guide Larson up the NASCAR ladder where he would make his Cup Series debut in 2014 in the No. 42 Chevrolet.

Ganassi was forced to fire Larson in 2020 after Larson’s use of a racial slur.  When the livelihood of hundreds of employees depends on corporate sponsorship what choice did Ganassi have?  Yet Ganassi was vilified on social media by some dirt-track fans across the country every time Larson won a dirt race in 2020.

Ironically Larson will be racing for his first Cup Series Championship Sunday at Phoenix, just not for the man who gave him the break.  If Larson is fortunate to win the title, I hope he takes a moment to recognize the man who invested considerably into his success.

Barring a victory Sunday at Phoenix by Kurt Busch or Ross Chastain, Ganassi’s 20-year scorecard in NASCAR looks like this: 24 Cup Series victories; two All-Star Race wins; 21 Xfinity Series wins and 53 pole positions.

Don’t mistake Ganassi’s leaving NASCAR as some sort of retirement for the 63-year-old Fox Chapel native.  There’s still the Extreme E Jurassic X Prix on December 18-19 in Dorset, UK, which leads into January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, where Ganassi will be fielding two Cadillac’s for the season-long Championship, which leads into the 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES Season, and you get my point.  Ganassi will be on pit road and in the paddock somewhere.

Ganassi wasn’t planning on selling the NASCAR team but when Marks couldn’t get team charters for 2022 on the open market he made Ganassi an offer he had to “seriously consider”.  Ganassi clearly inherited some of his late father Floyd’s business acumen.  The sale closes after the race.

Marks penned a letter to Ganassi and shared it on social media.

In that same 2010 interview Ganassi talked about how the foundation of a strong team is built by the people in the shop who show up every day and put in the long hours and hard work.  He echoed those same sentiments after Alex Palou won the 2021 INDYCAR Championship, deflecting credit to his employees.  Trackhouse Racing has one hell of a foundation on which to build.

Ganassi loves to use the hashtag #ILikeWinners on his social media posts after a race win.  NASCAR is certainly losing a 20-year pillar of strength and support in the garage area because Chip Ganassi is a winner.  Congratulations on a great run!

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Kyle Larson wins the pole position for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship finale

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Photo by Sean Gardner/Sean Gardner

AVONDALE, AZ (Pittsburgh Racing Now) – Kyle Larson’s quest for his first NASCAR Cup Series Championship is off to a good start as he put the No. 5 Hendrick Cars Chevrolet on the pole position for Sunday’s finale.

Larson’s fast lap of 26.116-seconds (137.847 mph) was his only qualifying lap but it was good enough to edge his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott by 0.173-seconds for the top spot.

Larson and Elliott’s teammate William Byron will start third (26.307/136.846) with Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney alongside in fourth (26.315/136.804).

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Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch will start fifth in the No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet.  Sunday’s race will be Ganassi’s last in NASCAR after 20-years.  Ganassi is selling the team to Trackhouse Racing’s Justin Marks and Pitbull.

The other two Championship contenders, Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr., will start sixth and 12th respectively.

The NASCAR Cup Series Championship starts at 3 p.m. ET and will be televised by NBC and can be heard on Motor Racing Network (MRN) affiliates and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch. 90).

Phoenix Cup Starting Lineup

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