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Kyle Larson and No. 5 Team Showcase Vegas Dominance

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson cashed in on an early season victory at Las Vegas on Mar. 3, 2024. (Photo: Myk Crawford | The Podium Finish)

LAS VEGAS — Kyle Larson and his No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 team had the winning hand again at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Much like last October’s South Point 400, the 31-year-old Elk Grove, California, native started from the second position. Yes, he swept Stages 1 and 2 like last fall.

However, Larson’s victory on Sunday afternoon was most impressive considering what has changed in the past 140 days.

Namely, Ford and Toyota introduced revamped challengers to the fold, respectively rolling out the Mustang Dark Horse and Camry XSE. Both vehicles were designed to excel with their downforce numbers against the tried and true Camaro ZL1.

Although Tyler Reddick and his No. 45 Nasty Beast Toyota Camry XSE, fielded by 23XI Racing, clearly had consistent, long run speed, Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels were more than ready at Vegas. If anything, they had the complete performance at the 1.5-mile speedway and on pit road.

While Reddick and his crew made some errors on pit road, such as an awkward pit stall entry by the Californian racer, it forced them to be behind the eight ball.

Even when Larson was passed early on by William Byron, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, in the early going, there was no panic or worrying from the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion. Instead, it was about biding their team to enjoy the lead once their car was hooked up on the track.

Last October, Larson led 133 of 267 laps, scoring a pivotal win that netted him a Championship 4 spot at Phoenix Raceway. On Sunday, Larson led 181 of 267 laps, scoring a dominant victory.

It was the third time Larson led for over 100 laps en route to a victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This time, it was the absolute masterclass in winning a Cup race, even with how tight and frantic things got with Larson against Reddick.

As aggressive as Larson can be behind the wheel, in concert with great spotting by Tyler Monn and leadership by Daniels, the 24-time Cup race winner could play defense while maintaining his sights on scoring the checkered flag.

Kyle Larson was able to utilize the lines effectively at Las Vegas last Sunday. (Photo: Christopher Vargas | The Podium Finish)

“I would say it’s got to be somewhat 50/50,” Larson said. “Once you’re in the corner — three and four you’re more out the windshield because it’s a more line sensitive corner especially as you’re trying to run the bottom. But even before you exit Turn 4, you’re already looking in your mirror and trying to judge the run that’s coming behind you.”

Now, it is no secret that battling dirty air has been a phenomenon in motorsports as the cars have evolved into aerodynamic, sleek machines. Then again, the drivers still factor into these aero wars, an aspect Larson has improved upon since arriving at Hendrick Motorsports in 2021.

“And then as you turn off into (Turn) 1 you kind of have — at least for me, I don’t know about other people — you’re looking where you’re going mirror is you can kind of out of your peripheral see his angle, and then like once I get loaded, then I can look again and add wheel if I need to block or release wheel to let it wash up or whatever,” Larson said. “Then yeah, same thing down the backstretch. It’s fun when you do it right.

“It’s tough. I almost kind of messed up a couple times. There’s some guys that are really good at mirror driving. I felt like I did an okay job of it there at the end.”

Aside from Larson’s astute awareness on where to position his car to disturb the aerodynamics for Reddick, it has been a historical stretch for NASCAR. In the first three weeks of the season, members of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program have visited Victory Lane.

Nick Sanchez‘s Fresh From Florida 250 win in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series season opener, Daniel Suárez’s three-wide thriller at Atlanta and Rajah Caruth‘s Victoria’s Voice Foundation 200 win last Friday evening were capped off by Larson’s Vegas showcase.

Larson, the first Drive for Diversity graduate to win a Cup championship, took notice of the diversity movement’s successes.

“I think that’s really important,” he said. “That’s really cool, with Suárez winning last week was super proud and happy for Rajah on Friday night not only because it’s Rajah and everything that he means to the sport, but with on his truck, and then myself winning here today, it is pretty cool for sure.

“The D4D program was good for my career. Kind of gave me my introduction into stock car racing and gained a lot of experience not only on the racetrack but off of it, as well, with everything that they offered there at Rev Racing when I was there. I’m sure it’s changed quite a bit since 2012, but regardless, they’ve produced some great drivers, and it’s cool to see. Hopefully, we can add some more D4D guys on to the new championship list down the road.”

Naturally, there are some considering Larson’s prospects of a dominant season like his championship campaign in 2021. That year, he won 10 points paying races plus the NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway.

When asked about the chances of another year like 2021, Larson downplayed such expectations.

“I don’t know. I mean, Next Gen racing is so much different than 2021,” he observed. “Who knows. Yes, I think we have the potential within our team to do that. I think it will be much harder. When we won here in 2021, we killed them at the end. This, we had to fight really hard for it. As Cliff mentioned, the field is much tighter, so that’s going to make winning much tougher than back then. Again, I think out team is well capable of it.

“I feel like we’ve done a really good job of executing to start the year. Daytona was going really well until it didn’t there at the end. Atlanta was going great until it didn’t. Then today, we did everything great from start to finish. Pit crew, pit calls, restarts, the car itself, myself in the seat, blocking the right way and making speed while doing it was good. If we can carry that on, I think there is definitely potential to have a great season like we did in 2021, but 11 wins that year, I don’t know, that would be really hard in the Next Gen era.”

No doubt, Kyle Larson’s No. 5 pit crew gets the job done as seen in Las Vegas. (Photo: Erik Smith | The Podium Finish)

The difference between winning and losing can be amplified by how a pit crew performs on any given pit stop each weekend. Consistently, the No. 5’s over-the-wall crew gets the job done with lightning fast stops, enabling Larson to gain track position all from solid pit entry, pit stops and pit exit.

Beyond those intangibles, Daniels credits his driver for having incredible situational awareness to deliver, more times than not, in the No. 5 car.

“I would argue he is so good at tracks with a lot of character,” Daniels said. “That’s a testament to the different types of cars that he drives all the time. He can adapt to so many different things. We are going to see him do that gain here in about three months, which is going to be a lot of fun to watch.

“He’s so good at moving the different lanes and how the car reacts in those different situations. I would argue we haven’t had the outright best car every time that we’ve won. He’s done a really good job on restarts. We all know how important clean air is. Yeah, we’ve given him something that he can drive and do what he’s good at to go put it in position.”

Likewise, Daniels tips his cap to Chevrolet with having a proven product despite having the oldest body style, a year old, versus this year’s Mustang Dark Horse and Camry XSE. Regardless of the stock car era, performance still matters in terms of the car’s body and ability to be the best, balanced machine on the track.

“Yeah, I would say it’s a relief for sure, and to the point I mentioned, it’s really fun to be a part of with all the folks at Chevrolet right now,” he said. “We don’t have a new submission and we know the other OEMs do. Our sense of urgency is there. We know that we’ve got to keep evolving kind of like I mentioned to Jeff, just the continuity of our stuff and keep understanding our stuff better.

“So we still have to push. We still made setup changes from the fall to here because we didn’t quite have the long run pace that some other guys had in the fall. I would still argue we needed a little bit more today. We’ve got to keep evolving and we’ve got to keep pushing. Yes, it was relief, but certainly not satisfied.”

Satisfaction often comes in the days after a victory at the Hendrick Motorsports campus. As Larson shared, the victory bell is often rung with the winning driver and crew chief greeting their associates with a tradition that continues to this day.

“Aside from 2021 with COVID and all that, every win since then I’ve gotten to go through all the different areas of Hendrick Motorsports and shake everybody’s hands and let them ring the bell and get to celebrate a little bit with them,” Larson said. “That’s special. It’s a really cool thing that they do.

“Even JR Motorsports has adapted it. When we won a race with them at Watkins Glen a couple years ago I got to go to their shop and same sort of thing, you have everybody ring the bell. It’s a cool thing, and hopefully now it’s a tradition for the 5 team going forward.”

Another tradition that may be in the offing is Larson celebrating wins with his children, Owen, Audrey and Cooper. While Larson was interviewed by Jamie Little of FOX NASCAR, his son, Owen, ran toward him from pit road to celebrate the win in front of the Vegas faithful.

The young father basked in his sentimental moment and hopes it builds wonderful memories for his children when they are older and reflecting on these times.

Kyle Larson and his children, Owen and Audrey, get a unique family trip to Las Vegas’ Victory Lane. (Photo: Myk Crawford | The Podium Finish)

“Well, I wasn’t surprised, I guess,” he said with a smile. “When we won here in the fall he did the same thing. He ran all the way from watching it, grandparents’ motor home all the way to the start-finish line, so he was huffing and puffing when he got there. It’s fun. It’s really fun to celebrate with the family. These are core memories that my kids are going to be able to remember for the rest of their lives.

“I can only imagine me being nine years old and standing on the roof of my dad’s race car staring at this crowd, how that must feel inside. I don’t know if he understands, either. It would have to be pretty special, at least to look back on decades and decades down the road when he’s got children of his own and I’m old and he’s taking care of me. I don’t think Cooper understands much other than just stuffing his face full of food.”

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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