Kyle Larson was supposed to compete for a title. Now his season is unexpectedly over

Kyle Larson has been a championship contender all season, but a blown engine early at Kansas Speedway unexpectedly meant he was eliminated from the playoffs.
Kyle Larson has been a championship contender all season, but a blown engine early at Kansas Speedway unexpectedly meant he was eliminated from the playoffs. AP

It was only a little past 3 p.m. local time on Sunday, but here came Kyle Larson, slowly driving his No. 42 car into the garage.

Or rather, the shell of his car. That’s probably more accurate, what with its blown engine and all. Now it’s just a hulking metal skeleton, a hearse of sorts for Larson’s season. His championship bid, much like his car, died Sunday.

And that’s shocking, because all year long, Larson has been one of the handful of favorites not just to make it to the championship race in Homestead in November, but to win it all. To lift the trophy, spray the champagne, spin doughnuts in that same No. 42 car. The trajectory was straight, and true, until suddenly, it wasn’t.

“It sucks to have the engine failure, but it just is what it is,” Larson said in the garage. “It’s a disappointing way to finish our race, and probably our season.”

Larson’s troubles began midway through the first stage of the race when his car dropped a cylinder. Larson said he felt that, and heard it, and knew immediately it would probably be fatal. He pitted in Lap 66, and shortly after drove the short way from pit road to the garage.

“Slowly got worse and finally blew up,” Larson said. “Hate that we blew an engine, and probably blew our shot at the championship.

“I don’t know, you’re not gonna read a magic potion and have your engine start running better.”

Larson was 29 points above the playoff cutdown line at one point, good for third in the standings before Sunday’s race. His car was one of the fastest this weekend in practices, and even a halfway decent finish would’ve pushed him into the next round. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that he’d advance, because that doesn’t exist, but Larson making it through was the next closest guarantee.

Instead, his breakout season ends in heartbreak. Larson won four races this season, tied for the second-most of any driver (behind only Martin Truex Jr., who had six wins entering Sunday). He had 14 Top 5 finishes, tied with Truex for the most. There’s not much consoling a driver in Larson’s position, but if there is anything, it’s that he’s just 25 and likely to have a few more seasons like this one – only, hopefully for him, with better endings.

“I’m not stunned because freak things happen in every sport,” Larson said. “I mean you look at every year in the past, most every time ... not always does the best team win. Not saying we’re the best team, but we’ve been one of the contenders all season long.”

He’s right, and you don’t have to look further than last season to see a perfect example of that unpredictability. Martin Truex Jr. was one of the fastest cars all year last year, but a blown engine in the second round of the playoffs also cost him a shot at a championship.

Back in the garage, Larson slid on his sunglasses and answered the media’s barrage of questions as best as anyone in his position could. He thanked his owners, his sponsors, his crew, and everyone else you could imagine. He pledged to watch the rest of the race, to “cross my fingers, pray to anything I can pray to.”

But no matter what was asked of him, Larson kept coming back to the same idea.

“I keep saying everything sucks, every question sucks, but I don’t know,” Larson said. “I don’t really know how to answer these because it’s the same answer for every question.”

Eventually the herd dissipated, leaving Larson to digest his 42nd-place finish and what just happened. He walked into the hauler alone and slid the doors shut. It wasn’t even 3:30, still more than an hour before the race would be done.

But Larson’s car already was, and that meant so is the rest his season. Everything, quite literally, went up in smoke.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks