Larson And Hendrick Gel – And Win – Quickly

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 8 2021

Kyle Larson crosses the finish line to win in Las Vegas on Sunday. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

When 2021 began, expectations were that Kyle Larson would once again enjoy a NASCAR Cup victory this year, but no one, not even team owner Rick Hendrick, thought it would come in just the season’s fourth race.

“I didn’t really expect for it to come this quick because I just thought it would take more time to gel,” Hendrick said. “To win in the fourth race, especially when you don’t have any practice, you just show up and race, it’s really been awesome.” 

On Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Larson placed an exclamation point on his comeback story, leading six times for 103 laps to breeze to a 3.156-second victory over Brad Keselowski in the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube. It was Larson’s seventh career Cup victory, his first since October 2019 at Dover and crew chief Cliff Daniels first-ever win in NASCAR’s premier series. It’s the second time in as many weeks that a crew chief has made his Cup victory lane debut.

“I didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again,” Larson said after his third top-10 finish this season. “When you’re getting down to the end of the race, you’re not really getting challenged by the guy behind you, those last … 20 laps felt like it took a long time. I was just praying that I wouldn’t see a caution, that we could get the win. Once I got to the white flag and knew I had a big lead … I was getting choked up.”

Larson’s first-ever victory on a 1.5-mile track followed a year in which the California native was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for a racial slur he made during the live stream of an iRacing event. He was required to attend sensitivity training before being reinstated. Team owner Chip Ganassi subsequently suspended Larson without pay, but when all of the driver’s sponsors ended their relationship with him, Ganassi fired the young competitor. During Larson’s time away from NASCAR he did more than was required of him and has talked about how the ventures changed him personally. He is now forming his own foundation – the Drive for 5 program. Larson cites it as a strengthening year. 

“I feel like I’m a much stronger racer today mentally than I probably was early last year,” Larson said. “I definitely think all of the experience I got racing a lot last year, winning a lot (in Sprint cars), helped me for moments like today (where I can stay calm). Like making a mistake like I did coming to pit road, being able to stay calm in that moment, just get back to work, kind of clear your mind. I don’t know if earlier last year or before that if I would be mentally strong enough to clear my mind and just go back out and start hitting the marks again and getting away from the (No.) 2 car (Keselowski).”

After the race, Keselowski and Bubba Wallace congratulated Larson.

“I think everybody loves a good redemption story,” Keselowski said. “He’s fought really hard for his opportunity to come back. I’m happy for him.” 

Daniels, who took over as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief midway through the 2019 season, described the 28-year-old Larson as a “nice spark for this team because it was tough to see Jimmie retire.”

“When Kyle and I first connected over the winter we knew there was going to be a path to get us here,” said Daniels, who attended a few dirt track races with Larson last fall as well as the Chili Bowl in January. 

“We knew it was going to take a lot of prep work to get here. Kyle is in the shop three days a week just pouring through notes with us, looking at video, looking at data. Our guys have done a nice job to help get him prepared and, likewise, he’s done a nice job of just giving us sensations he needs to feel, things he’s felt in the past and how he would like the car to respond in certain situations.” 

  With Larson’s victory, Hendrick Motorsports has now won two of the season’s first four races, giving the organization 265 Cup victories, just three shy of the record held by Petty Enterprises. However, Larson’s win was special for Hendrick because the car number with which the organization made its debut in 1984 carried his late son’s paint scheme.

“This win today in the (No.) 5 car with my son’s paint scheme on it was probably one of the most special races that I’ve ever watched,” Hendrick noted. 

Still, it’s the overall chemistry in the Hendrick organization that has its owner excited.

“I just feel like the chemistry is so good right now,” Hendrick said. “I don’t know if I ever remember it being any better across the board with all four cars. Two cars sometimes, then one car winning them all, but now we’ve got a really good balance.” 

The Cup Series moves to Phoenix next weekend with the race scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. on Fox. 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 8 2021
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