CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyle Larson felt a cylinder drop, and then his engine failed. With a puff of smoke, his season was essentially ended and the playoffs took on a completely different look.

Martin Truex Jr. is the favorite to win NASCAR’s championship, but if one driver had shown this season that he can beat Truex, it was Larson. He has been the best of the non-Toyota drivers this season, and if he could have made it to NASCAR’s finale, he’d have had a head-to-head shot at stopping Truex.

But making it through NASCAR’s elimination rounds is a whole lot harder than it looks on paper, and Larson was the surprise victim Sunday at Kansas Speedway. He was at a loss for words after the engine failure.

“I keep saying everything sucks. I don’t really know how to answer these (questions) because it’s the same answer for every question,” he said. “Either way you go about it, it stinks. A part of me, I guess, will maybe be thankful that it wasn’t on my doing.”

No, it wasn’t his doing, it was a broken part that changed these playoffs. Just one of them racing deals.

It was heartbreaking for the entire Chip Ganassi Racing organization, which landed both of its cars in the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Both Larson and Jamie McMurray were eliminated in the first round last season, but this season the team had every reason to believe Larson would be racing for the title at Homestead next month.

His four victories are tied with Kyle Busch (like Truex, a Toyota driver) for second in the Cup Series. But now Larson is out of the picture — McMurray was eliminated Sunday, too — and Truex’s path got a little easier.

Truex’s coronation is not automatic, but here’s what he’s up against:

— Jimmie Johnson: The reigning champion slid into the third round of the playoffs despite a pair of spins at Kansas. He also brought along teammate Chase Elliott, who was fast the entire second round. That could mean that Hendrick Motorsports has locked in on something much the way it did this time last season. The series races Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson is a nine-time winner and his victory there last October put him into the finale. Once he had his spot, that seventh championship became inevitable. As Truex racks up win after win, the Hendrick gang might quietly be moving Johnson closer to a record eighth title.

— Kyle Busch: The Toyotas are better than the Fords and the Chevrolets, and that’s just fact. Truex and Busch have combined to win five of the six playoff races so far, but Busch has not been dominant the way Truex has been with his Furniture Row Racing team. Although Joe Gibbs Racing is aligned with Furniture Row, the Colorado-based team has clearly outperformed the Gibbs camp. Matt Kenseth was eliminated at Kansas, so Gibbs only has Busch and Denny Hamlin still in the game. Of the two, Busch seems better positioned to compete with Truex.

— Brad Keselowski: He had very little time to celebrate his victory at Talladega, which moved him into the third round. That’s because the plan Paul Wolfe had mapped for these playoffs required Keselowski to win at Talladega as well as Martinsville. The Team Penske crew firmly believes they need this weekend to get them to Homestead, and if Keselowski can make the final four, then he’s got a shot.

Right now, this is Truex’s title to lose. His win Sunday was his seventh of the season and he leads nearly every statistical category. But, as Larson learned the hard way, bad breaks and bad luck can ruin an entire season.

“Freak things happen in every sport,” Larson said. “In the new playoff format era, not always does the best team win. Not saying we are the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. We have been consistent and just now got bit.”

That bite knocked off a true title contender and opened the door for others. If someone can take down Truex, they earned it, too.


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JENNA FRYER
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