The comeback trail for Kyle Larson was fulfilled at Phoenix Raceway Sunday.
An all-around team effort from Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 team led to Larson winning the Cup Championship Race to lock up the NASCAR championship.
On what’s been a dominant year, Larson became the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win at least 10 races in a season. But the road to the Bill France Cup wasn’t easy by any stretch.
At one point in the race, Larson had to fight through traffic but ultimately, the No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE was back up front. This was thanks in large part of a superb series of pit stops, including the final stop that put him ahead of Martin Truex, Jr.
Once the green flag waved for the final time, Larson took control of the 312-lap race for good as Truex struggled catching him. Larson went on to score his fifth playoff win of the season. Good enough to take a lap burnout in spite of the championship flag falling off.
Larson then celebrated with his entire crew and relish the energetic Arizona crowd, knowing he’s the latest man to win a title for Hendrick Motorsports. After facing the lowest point of his career when he was suspended by NASCAR, Larson reaches the pinnacle of stock car racing.
“I cannot believe it,” said Larson. “I didn’t even think I’d be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago. To win a championship is crazy. I’ve got to say first off thank you so much to Rick Hendrick, Hendrickcars.com, Jeff Gordon, NASCAR, every single one of my supporters in the stands, watching at home, my family. I’ve got so many of my friends and family here. My parents, my sister, my wife and kids.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win. Without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They are the true winners of this race. They are true champions. I’m just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single man or person, man and woman at Hendrick Motorsports, this win is for all of us, and every one of you. This is unbelievable. I’m speechless.”
When the dust finally settled, Larson racked up the aforementioned 10 wins, 20 top-fives, 20 top-10s and led a 36-race season record 2581 laps. The only other man who led more than 2500 laps in a season since 2001 was Jeff Gordon.
The four-time series champion told The Podium Finish about the team’s growth, knowing Larson’s racing greatness.
“When you get a talent that comes together and the chemistry of a great team and they click. From all the way from Chevrolet and the resources that they’ve given us with the race cars and engines. To the effort Hendrick has put into it,” said Gordon.
“If you really want to break it down with what Cliff, Kyle and the whole team have done. Right away, they knew they had a great talent behind the wheel. They had to deliver and put a lot of effort in making that happen. Magic things just started happening early in the season where they can build the confidence to get to that next level.”
Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels described how terrible things were going halfway in the race. Such thought showcases how strong the team have been all season.
“Compared to our standards this year that I never expected to set the bar that high to ourselves, where we could go dominate and lead laps, we were not where we needed to be,” said Daniels.
“I am familiar with what he needs to be comfortable in a car, and unfortunately we did not give him that for most of the race today. We had to make a lot of adjustments. There was a wrench in the window every single pit stop. We knocked in rubbers. We did all sorts of — every spectrum of air pressure that you could try, even one by accident that helped us.
“Even the final pit stop the guys had an amazing stop, was all four tires had different air pressure, it was a track bar change and tape, and they still won the race off pit road, so that was pretty cool.”
Gordon compared Larson’s chemistry with Daniels to the time he arrived at HMS in late 1992.
“You love somebody that pays attention to details and provide you a great race car. Then it’s your job to deliver for that person. That’s what they do and compliment one another,” Gordon explained. “Cliff put his effort in with his group of guys and put the cars on the track and Kyle delivers for them on the race track.”
For the third time since winning the 2017 title, Truex finished second in the final standings. Truex appeared to have the title in the bag. Then a late-race caution by David Starr led to the final pit stop where Larson beat him out.
A combination of clean air reigning supreme and being gutted about finishing second is what Truex had in mind.
“Second hurts, I’m not going to lie, especially with the car we had and the job the guys did,” said Truex, who won Stage 1. “That’s racing as they say, and sometimes you’re just not on the right side of things. We were on the right side of things to get the lead there, and weren’t able to hang on to it.
“If we could have had the lead, I think it would have been over, but that’s kind of how the 5 did it. They had a hell of a season, congrats to them. Gosh, dang, it sucks. I hate it.”
Behind Truex in the championship standings was Denny Hamlin. On a weekend where he was embracing the chaos, Hamlin was in the mix with the leaders. However, he was the only Championship 4 contender who failed to lead a lap after crossing the line in third.
“I really liked where we were at with 25 (laps) to go. We were just exceptional in the long run, which wasn’t too surprising,” said Hamlin. “Started running the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) back down there and got within a couple car lengths. Obviously, that debris caution changed a lot.
“It just didn’t pan out. We needed that thing to go green and it didn’t.”
Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott had a strong car in the opening two stages. Even duking it out and rubbed fenders with Larson at one point. But when the race was winding down, Elliott was simply outclassed as he finished fifth in the race, fourth overall in points.
“I felt like we all kind of had our moments really throughout the day. You get a caution with 20 laps to go, it’s going to be very difficult to run down and pass the guy that jumps out front in the restart,” said Elliott, who led 94 laps.
“But yeah, proud of our team. Felt like we had a nice game plan coming into the week. Felt like our car did a lot of the things we wanted it to do. No major mistakes, just needed to be a little better in those first few sequences of restarts and pit stops there at the end.”
At the end of the day, Hendrick’s winning ways are back to where they were. Along with Larson’s 10 wins, the other three HMS drivers of Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron won a combined seven races. If you do the math, that’s a total of 17 victories in 36 races.
“Between the driver lineup, crew chief lineup and the whole overall team, this is the best we’ve ever had in a single season,” said Gordon. “As competitive as everyone one of them were winning races. To cap it off with a championship and Chase being right there. It’s been a magical year and we’re going to try to enjoy every moment of it.
“They’ve worked hard for it and you always want to say somebody’s deserving. Every driver and team that got in the final four deserved it, but (the No. 5 team) stepped up when it counted most and I’m really proud of them.”
Larson said Sunday’s championship moment goes beyond himself and it showed at Phoenix.
“Definitely a team win. I’m honestly glad that it took our whole,” said Larson. “It always takes your whole team, but in one race, Cliff, the engineers making the adjustments on the car to keep us in the game, my pit crew is the main reason why we won that race.
“I’m sure somewhere in there I made some good decisions, too. Just happy that we had to earn this one and worked our butts off to get it done.”
Between now and the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, there’s no off-season for Larson and Hendrick Motorsports. As one chapter closes with the Gen-6, another one begins with the Next Gen machines.
Stage 1 Results: Truex, Harvick, Elliott, Hamlin, Larson, Byron, Custer, Blaney, Ku. Busch and DiBenedetto
Stage 2 Results: Larson, Elliott, Hamlin, Truex, Blaney, Harvick, Keselowski, Ky. Busch, Logano and Byron
Final Top 10 Results: Larson (champion), Truex (runner-up), Hamlin (third), Blaney, Elliott (fourth), Almirola, Ky. Busch, Harvick, Bell and Keselowski