SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Kyle Larson celebrated NASCAR approving his participation in the playoffs with his third Cup victory of the season — a Sunday win at his home track.

The victory for Larson, who grew up 80 miles away from Sonoma Raceway in Elk Grove, was his second on the rolling road course in picturesque wine country. It is the fifth win on a road course for NASCAR’s 2021 Cup champion and moved him to the top of the current series standings.

He wasn’t entirely sure how he got to victory lane after coming out of the pits in eighth after his final service stop of the race with less than 30 laps remaining. He had to drive his way to the front and didn’t regain the lead until eight laps remaining.

“I didn’t know what we were doing as far as strategy. I was just out there banging laps away,” Larson said. “I don’t know, we study all the strategy, but it’s like doing homework: I don’t really know what I’m looking at.

“So I was like, ‘Well, man, these guys are going to have to pit another time, maybe?’ Then we said we had to go race and pass these guys, I got a bit nervous.”

Despite his early season dominance, it took until Tuesday of this week for NASCAR to grant Larson the waiver he needed to compete in this year’s playoffs because he missed the Coca-Cola 600 last month. Larson became the fifth driver to attempt to run the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s longest race of the season on the same day, but rain in both Indiana and North Carolina ruined the attempt.

The Indy 500 was delayed four hours by rain, which forced Larson to miss the start of the Coca-Cola 600. By the time he arrived in North Carolina, the race had been stopped for rain there, never resumed and Larson never turned a lap. Because of that, it took NASCAR a week of internal debate to decide if one of its biggest stars would be given the pass required to remain eligible for playoff participation.

His win at Sonoma only showed how foolish NASCAR would have looked had it ruled against the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Larson led 19 of the 110 laps and passed defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. with eight laps remaining to uphold the win in his No. 5 Chevrolet. It is his 20th win since joining Hendrick in 2021 which ranks third in the organization behind Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Truex was going to finish second in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing but ran out of gas before he reached the finish line. He was scored 27th as a pair of tow trucks followed him to the finish.

That gave second to Michael McDowell in a Ford for Front Row Motorsports. Chris Buescher was third in a Ford for RFK Racing and Chase Elliott of Hendrick was fourth. He was followed by Ross Chastain of Trackhouse, who had last-lap contact with Kyle Busch that dropped Busch from fifth to 17th.

HAMLIN OUT EARLY

Denny Hamlin, the Cup Series points leader at the start of the race, had his day come to an abrupt end just two laps into the event when his Toyota engine failed, sending him to a last-place finish at Sonoma for the second consecutive year.

Hamlin said he had zero warning the engine was about to blow. He started 25th and was 29th when his engine failed.

“No. Nothing. It’s just the gearing is a little weird for the track,” Hamlin said. “It’s a lot of high-end RPM stuff, but the same as everyone else and I’m just not really sure. They’ll look at it and figure it out, but certainly not ideal.”

Hamlin, who was scored with a 38th-place finish, has finished outside the top 30 at Sonoma for three consecutive years.

It wasn’t much better for Ty Gibbs, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, who hit the wall 16 laps into the race and finished just one spot better than Hamlin in 37th.

“I just made a mistake and took us out of this day,” Gibbs said.

UP NEXT

NASCAR takes the Cup Series to Iowa Speedway for the first time in track history. NASCAR began using the track in 2006 for lower level series and then some national series events in 2009, but never Cup. NASCAR stopped using the track after the 2019 season. IndyCar made the track an annual stop in 2007 and has been there every year since except 2021.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing