AVONDALE, Ariz. — In a season that would make Ricky Bobby proud, Kyle Larson’s tenacious driving approach has been all or nothing throughout this season.
There is rarely an in between mode for the 31-year-old Elk Grove, California native. The versatile driver never holds back when he is behind the wheel, whether it is a sprint car in points anywhere around the world or his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 across the country.
For the past 35 points paying race weekends, Larson’s all or nothing approach has been mostly rewarding with four victories, 14 top fives and 17 top 10s with an average finish of 15.0. As the level of competition has been close with an on track product that constantly evolves, Larson’s average finish is respectable considering his confident, aggressive apporach.
Before Larson got on track on Friday evening at Phoenix Raceway, he considered the possibility of delivering the 15th Cup championship for his car owner Rick Hendrick.
In this case, Larson could win his second Cup championship in the midst of NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season which would be as sweet as Jeff Gordon’s third Cup title earned during NASCAR’s 50th anniversary season in 1998.
“I think it would be great,” Larson said. “Obviously trying to get Rick his 15th championship in 39 years I think is pretty amazing. Leading into the 40th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports next year would be great.
“Yeah, no, it’s just fortunate to be racing for an amazing race team with amazing people. Would love to do our best to try and make them proud.”
Throughout the season, Larson has made his team proud on the track. Equally so, the over-the-wall crew have delivered on pit road with consistent sub-10 second pit stops, playing a pivotal role with the wins at Richmond, Martinsville, Darlington and Las Vegas.
Given how NASCAR competition is a team sport, Larson tipped his cap to his No. 5 pit crew and the importance of nailing the rudimentary aspects of pit stops at the winding pit road of Phoenix Raceway.
“Yeah, no, pit road, there’s a lot of opportunity on a pit road with a corner,” he said. “Phoenix has a long corner, pit road. There’s a lot of opportunities to maximize your speeds and stuff. The pit stalls are really slick. Hitting your signs consistently is important, all that.
“My pit crew has been so good all year. I have a lot of confidence in them to put down a good stop when it matters most, and hopefully we can win.”
It would seem driver and pit crew have complimented each other’s strengths through the hills and valleys of this Cup season. Then again, when it comes to some missed opportunities, Larson holds himself accountable.
“We’ve been pretty much pretty good,” he said. “So the first round was really good. The second round was probably our worst round for speed, but we were able to do a good enough job in the stages and stuff to kind of propel us through that round.
“Yeah, Vegas we put together a really good race, executed really well with not having the best race car in the field. Homestead, I think had I not had that win, I probably would have played the race out differently. I think we still would have finished probably in the top two or three at that race, then had enough points at Martinsville to point ourselves in.
The grind of this season has been acknowledged by Larson, particularly when a few rough stretches besieged their efforts with seven Did Not Finishes (DNFs). However, the DNFs have been minimal in the nine prior Playoff races with only Texas and Homestead being the hiccups in an otherwise solid stretch of races.
“We’ve done a good job for sure in the Playoffs,” he said. “As Cliff (Daniels, crew chief) said, we’ve been battle-tested throughout the regular year, so we’re kind of ready for the Playoffs, whatever may arise and come at us.
“It was a tough season to this point, and you would love to cap it off with a championship.”
At times, Larson has garnered some critiques from analysts, pundits and press for pushing the limits with his car during race weekends. Although that may alarm the outside voices, Daniels commends his driver for his all out approach, pointing out the benefits of going at 110% prior to the race.
“I’ve got no problem with him pushing hard again,” Daniels said. “I genuinely think this happened on the straightaway. This isn’t exactly an overstepping the edge type of situation.
“Yeah, he always pushes the car really hard, especially in practice, which is great for us, right? It lets us know what kind of speed he can extract out of it, what kind of adjustments we need to make. (Friday) was certainly the case.”
Naturally, Larson acknowledges how his driving style is the right blend for his No. 5 team’s methodical, smooth execution on most race weekends. He clarified his close encounter with the Turn 1 wall during Friday’s practice session.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s good. I don’t think any team would be upset if their driver scuffs the wall on the straightaway,” Larson said. “As often as I do it, it doesn’t seem to annoy him as much as maybe it would annoy some other crew chiefs.
“No, I mean, yeah, I feel like I have the support of my whole team, even when I make dumb mistakes. But, yeah, I don’t know really where I’m going with it… It’s just a scuff.”
Throughout Larson’s past five races at Phoenix Raceway, he has been a superb qualifier and his race performances have been smoother than some of his recent finishes.
|Race Date||Event Name||Start Pos||Finish Pos|
|Mar. 12, 2023||United Rentals Work United 500||1||4|
|Nov. 6, 2022||NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race||4||9|
|Mar. 13, 2022||Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500||7||34|
|Nov, 7, 2021||Ruoff Mortgage 500||1||1|
|Mar. 14, 2021||Instacart 500||2||7|
Before Saturday’s qualifying session, Larson was only the 11th fastest overall and the 10th fastest driver in a 10-lap consecutive run in Friday’s final practice session. Daniels considered Larson’s overall car performance and potential in a practice round not totally indicative of the conditions for Sunday’s season finale.
“We had to work on our car a little bit,” Daniels said. “Hard to tell being in practice. I don’t know exactly what happened. I want to say from probably hitting the apron our diffuser fell down the first run, so the car was super unhooked the first run. Kind of spooked us, so we had to sit there and look things over and check it all out.
“Then for the second run and beyond, we kind of had a normal race car. From what I could tell, everybody’s fighting. Rear grip on entry really both ends. Heard a lot of guys talking about that. Same is the case for us.”
It is always anyone’s guess when it comes to nailing the nearly perfect setup on race weekends. Despite the one to two hot laps prominent with Saturday’s qualifying round, the conditions were similar to what is anticipated for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race (2 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock).
“Certainly, the track conditions are a bit different than what we’ll see on Sunday,” he said. “It’s going to be really hard for any of us to predict exactly how to pinpoint what that needs to be for our cars. We’ll keep working on it and give it our best shot for Sunday.”
Even Larson acknowledged his car’s improved drivability and overall characteristics during his two hot laps in Saturday’s qualifying rounds.
“I mean, (Friday) night I was not too confident, just more so confused,” Larson said. “We qualified better (Saturday) than I thought we would. I think my race car is quite a bit better than we were (Friday).
“I understand it’s going to be a tough race. I don’t know. I mean, yeah, past results help confidence, but it’s a different race every time you come back.”
No matter the different tire setup, the one used in New Hampshire in July or how well the competition has been, Larson knows Sunday’s race truly boils down to anybody in the Championship 4. Likewise, he does not count out Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney, much less his teammate in William Byron, the pole sitter.
“Well, I mean, even though they start 13th and 15th, they still get to pick third and fourth pit stall selections,” he said. “They’re going to end up in a good stall. Their car obviously was really good in practice yesterday, so they’re going to find their way to the front.
“I don’t view anything about where they qualified. I wish I would have got the pole. Just was a little bit off of William there. I think honestly if I would have qualified a little bit better the first round, I think what I did in the second round would have caught him off guard a little bit sooner than it did, and I probably would have beat him, gotten the first pit stall selection.”