When there’s money on the line and no holds barred racing, regardless of the track surface, count on Kyle Larson as the man to beat.
The 29-year-old Elk Grove, California native knows what it to win this race with victories in 2019, his penultimate triumph with Chip Ganassi Racing, and last year for Hendrick Motorsports.
Although the NASCAR All-Star Race is a non-points, exhibition battle, Larson’s win last season came during his spring surge, a run that fueled his championship efforts.
Starting fourth for tonight’s race, it’s safe to say that Larson has a good, fast car and some great strategies brainstormed by crew chief Cliff Daniels.
“The format sounds exciting,” Larson said in a team press release. “It’s always interesting because it seems like the format is different each year. I’m sure Cliff and the team will study to see what strategy may work the best.
“But I’m sure that strategy is trying our best to win the first segment so we can start on the pole for the final one. Hopefully, we can get another All-Star (Race) win.”
While Larson’s NASCAR All-Star Race win last year might have seemed easy from the box score, he and his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy team had their hands full in the middle stages.
Daniels reflected on last year’s effort and how the team overcame those tricky times in stages 2 and 3.
“We studied on what we needed to do (to win), but our car was not what it needed to be for most of the race,” he recalled. “At the end of every stage, we were doing huge changes to try to free it up because we were so tight in traffic. We started on the pole, I believe by random draw, and we were OK out front in the first stage, but we couldn’t pass at all in the second stage.
“I got worried. Kyle got worried. But it all worked out okay because we were in good position (for the restart) going into the final stage – which is all you can ask for. No matter all the studying we did and could do, it didn’t change the fact we didn’t have a good car in traffic and needed to adjust on it and make it better.”
Improvements seem to be the forte of Larson and Daniels even as they find their footing with the Next Gen car. Although Larson has tallied four Did Not Finishes or DNFs after 13 races, he’s got a win at Fontana, six top fives and seven top 10 results.
Despite contending with a shaky steering wheel earlier this year, it’s safe to say Larson finds the latest iteration of the No. 5 car to be similar to the Gen 6 car.
“I mean, it feels pretty normal to me so far,” Larson remarked at COTA. “So I mean, I wouldn’t say… I don’t have any posit-… I mean, there’s positives. Don’t get me wrong. But there’s nothing different enough to be like, “Oh, well, this is better than the other car in this area.”
Besides Larson’s incredible talents behind the wheel and an innovative crew chief atop the No. 5 pit box, the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion has one of the best pit crews in the business.
Along with a crew delivering lightning fast stops, Larson acknowledged how he coalesces with his teammates, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman.
Needless to say, when it comes to tonight’s race and the next several regular season races, this team is focused on winning, resolving any potential issues as quickly as they deliver results on the track.
“Hendrick Motorsports, we do a really good job, and they’ve always done a good job, of working together,” Larson said. “And it sounds like the teams are all working together closer than they ever have. So, it’s fun to be a part of that. All the teammates get along and race well together.
“Even when we have a mix-up like Chase and I had at Fontana, it kind of gets nipped in the bud pretty quickly and allows you to move on, where I think you can look at other teams and teammates that have run-ins, and it kind of festers on for a month or so. So, yeah, it’s good to be a part of Hendrick Motorsports, and I hope to be together with all of our teammates and people and mechanics for a very long time.