Kyle Larson wins NASCAR Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway

SONOMA, Calif. — At this time last week, Kyle Larson had no idea whether he’d be eligible for NASCAR’s championship playoffs this fall.

Now Larson is not only back in victory lane, but back atop the NASCAR Cup Series standings as well.

Larson blew past both controversy and the entire Cup field Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, using fresher tires to win at his home track for the second time. The victory was Larson’s third of the season, putting the suburban Sacramento native in command with 10 races remaining in the regular season.

It was also a welcome respite from the shadow of whether or not Larson would receive a so-called playoff waiver for missing last month’s Coca-Cola 600, when rain delayed his Indianapolis 500 debut and “Double” attempt, forcing him to arrive late to the NASCAR race in Charlotte.

NASCAR rules require all drivers to start all 26 regular-season races in order to be eligible for the playoffs unless they have a waiver — essentially an excused absence. But officials were indecisive about whether a waiver would be granted to Larson, since he chose to prioritize another series over them.

The controversy dragged on through last week’s race held outside St. Louis, after which Larson’s playoff points were removed and he was technically ineligible to compete for the title.

But ultimately, NASCAR announced Tuesday what many expected all along: That Larson would be authorized to compete for the title this fall.

Prior to the Sonoma race, the 31-year-old shrugged off the waiver discussion as something that never stressed him as much as others perceived and said he was simply happy to move on.

“Just thankful that nobody has to deal with the drama going forward,” he said.

But Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon, the four-time Cup Series champion, said he felt Larson was more concerned than the driver was letting on with the media.

“I was telling him not to worry, but I was worried,” Gordon said.

That said, Gordon noted how Larson is “very calm and cool through a lot of things.”

“It is just his personality and upbringing,” Gordon said. “That really works well for you when you’ve had a bad weekend or something that hasn’t gone well.”

Larson may have had the fastest car at Sonoma on Sunday, but he had to be patient and allow his team’s strategy to play out. His crew chief, Cliff Daniels, opted for an alternate approach that left Larson in 22nd place — but on fresher (and thus faster) tires than the cars in front of him.

So Larson methodically made his way through the field, eventually passing Martin Truex Jr. with nine laps to go. It may not have mattered anyway, though; Truex ran out of gas on the final lap and had to inch his way across the finish line, placing 27th instead of second.

Larson is now the Cup Series points leader (by 14 over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott) after former points leader Denny Hamlin had his engine blow up after two laps on Sunday and finished last.

Required reading

(Photo: Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

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