MADISON, Ill. – Kyle Larson’s path to a top five finish at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway was quite eventful but memorable.
Starting from the 22nd position, Larson dropped to 32nd in the early moments of Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300. Dealing with a loose handling No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the 21-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner struggled for pace and grip around the 1.25-mile speedway.
Placing 28th in Stage 1, Larson brought his car to pit road on Lap 56 during a caution period for Michael McDowell’s Turn 1 spin. Much like the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the 2021 Cup champion sought for much needed adjustments executed by his team led by crew chief Cliff Daniels.
Throughout Stage 2, the Elk Grove, California native worked his way up the leaderboard, moving up to the 11th position on Lap 129. As Stage 2 came to a close, Larson passed Martin Truex Jr. to finish 10th, nabbing a valuable stage point in the process.
Hovering near the top 10 at the start of Stage 3, the turning point came with 62 laps left in the race for a caution due to Tyler Reddick’s accident in Turn 1. With a majority of the lead lap contenders opting for four fresh tires, Larson’s team rolled the dice by changing two right side tires for optimum track position.
That gamble propelled the cagey veteran to the lead on a restart with 57 laps remaining. However, his lead was short lived as pole sitter Kyle Busch worked his way back into the lead on the next lap.
For the remainder of the race, it became a bit of a drag race between Busch and Larson with several restarts drawing the drivers alongside each other for as many as two to three laps. With both racers seeking their third victory of the season, Larson tried his best to draw even across with Busch or pull sufficiently ahead for a slide job.
In the end, Busch bested Larson in the NASCAR Overtime restart, with the latter losing a possible runner-up in the race’s final two laps, placing fourth.
Normally, a fourth is not something to gloss over about. Then again, outside of a runner-up at Kansas and the NASCAR All-Star Race victory in North Wilkesboro, Larson has placed 20th or worse in three of the past four races.
Upon reflection, Larson considered his uphill battle and eventual top five result at Gateway.
“I want to be upset with fourth after running second there the last little bit of the race and having a shot to lineup on the front row for a green-white-checkered,” Larson said. “For a lot of the day, I thought I was going to run 20th on back. Huge thank you to Cliff Daniels and everybody on the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy team for making the right adjustments.”
Unlike the Coca-Cola 600, Larson did not wind up driving his car behind the wall. Instead, he was able to keep in contention and drive a smart, clean race against one of NASCAR’s most tenacious talents in Busch.
“I don’t know if we were still amazing, but the strategy calls were perfect and at the right time and the late cautions fell at the right time,” he said. “I think the car would have been fine had we just ran those last 50 laps under green.”
As teamwork makes the dream work, it is clear that Larson was thankful for his crew’s input and catalyzing ways, particularly leading up to Stage 2.
“Proud of the effort today,” he said. “It’s been a couple tough races. We’ve been so good all year long and the last few have been pretty bad and we’ve had to work on it quite a bit. The team got us in a place where we could contend for the win, so you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Considering the concern of dwindling respect among on track competitors, Larson and Busch provided each other with the room to race hard but cleanly in the final laps. In today’s NASCAR, it was a refreshing change of pace, something Larson observed.
“Thank you to HendrickCars.com, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, Valvoline – everybody that helps on this car,” Larson said. “It’s a whole team effort. And congrats to Kyle (Busch). It was fun chasing him down.
“I wish I would have done a better job. When I was the leader, I hadn’t been at the front all day, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know where people were running on restarts and I didn’t know how hard they could go. I just got kind of caught off guard and lost the control.”