Is Sunday Larson’s title to lose in Phoenix? His thoughts

AVONDALE, AZ — Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson heads to Phoenix Raceway this weekend looking to become the 35th different driver in NASCAR Cup Series history to win the championship and the fifth different driver to accomplish the feat for Hendrick Motorsports joining Chase Elliott (2020), Jimmie Johnson (2016, ’13, ’10, ’09, ’08, ’07, ’06), and NASCAR Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon (2001, ’98, ’97, ’95) and Terry Labonte (1996). 

 

The thing is, of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 drivers, Larson is the only one making his final round debut. The Elk Grove, California native’s previous best finish in the NASCAR Cup Series final standings was sixth back in 2019.

Martin Truex Jr. enters his record tying fifth. Denny Hamlin has four including three of which consecutively while Elliott is in his second straight.

“I haven’t treated it any differently than any other race,” said Larson on Thursday. “It hasn’t so far felt any different. I haven’t had any butterflies this week, which has been good. I didn’t know how I would feel leading into this week’s events.

“I think I’m just really excited for the opportunity. Hopefully we can take advantage of the opportunity and win my first championship. This is something you always dream about, being in this position to win a championship. I’m just very happy, thankful, lucky to be sitting where I am right now talking to you guys, speaking about a championship.”

Is the fact that he’s never been here a disadvantage though?

“Not at all,” he says. “I don’t think so. I think Chase proved last year that it doesn’t matter. Yeah, we’ve won the most races this year. So, yeah, I don’t know, it’s just try to treat it as another race.”

Larson also says that while its been nearly a decade since he last was in a position to race for a title, in those instances where he did have a shot, his nerves were never really a factor then. So why would they be now?

“Yeah, I mean, it’s been a long time since I’ve truly, like, raced for a championship. I don’t really remember how I felt then. I won a Sprint car championship in 2010. I won the K&N championship in 2012. It’s been almost a decade since I’ve been in this position to win a championship.

“I feel like, though, if I was nervous then, I don’t feel nervous now. Maybe that’s just because of a lot more experience, confidence in the race team and stuff.”

 

Larson, one of the most accomplished Dirt racers on the planet, graduated from the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program and immediately pounced on the NASCAR national series scene. In 2012, Larson signed Turner Scott Motorsports and made four starts in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series posting three top 10s; including a runner-up finish at Phoenix. He made the jump to fulltime racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series the next season (2013) with Turner Scott Motorsports posting nine top fives and 17 top 10s. He finished the season eighth in points. He also made his NASCAR Cup Series debut in 2013. He competed in four of the final six races of the season for Turner Scott Motorsports after it was announced he would drive the No. 42 Chevrolet full-time in 2014 for Chip Ganassi Racing.

 

Ever since 2014, Larson has been scheduled to run fulltime in the NASCAR Cup Series. He spent almost seven full seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing putting up six wins with organization from 2014-2020. But in 2020, Chip Ganassi Racing released Larson just four races into the season following his suspension by NASCAR for using a racial slur over the radio during a public iRacing event. Larson would sit out the remainder of the 2020 season. Following Larson fulfilling the requirements by NASCAR to lift his suspension, Hendrick Motorsports reached out to him to see if he wanted another shot. And as they say, the rest is history.

Hendrick Motorsports brought back the No. 5 team and paired crew chief Cliff Daniels with Larson for the 2021 season. Since joining the No. 5 team at the beginning of the year the duo has put up a series leading nine victories leading into the Championship race this weekend.  

Nine wins. 2,474 laps led. 19 top five finishes. 25 top 10’s. A first ever trip to NASCAR’s Championship 4. All career highs. The only thing missing is some championship hardware to show for it. Can Larson earn his first career title on Sunday?

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – OCTOBER 24: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, points toward the sky, as he celebrates winning the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 24, 2021 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Would this season be considered a disappointing one for Larson if he’s not celebrating a title on Sunday afternoon at the Phoenix Raceway?

“I just hope we can,” Larson said. “It’s like hard for me to think if people will really remember if you don’t win the championship now at this point.

“Not that it adds pressure but you can read into it adding pressure that I want to win the championship even more to cap off what’s been a great season.

“I try not to think about it. And I think the more wins you get, hopefully we’re winning the championship in Phoenix, but I feel like the more wins we’ve gotten will make that feeling if I happen to not win, make it easier to swallow I think just because it has been a great year.

“It comes down to one race there in Phoenix. It’s a different style track than we’ve been winning on. But I don’t know. Like I said I try not to think about it. We’ll see how the feeling is. Hopefully we’re celebrating after Phoenix and I don’t have to accept the fact that we didn’t win a championship.

“But either way, yes, it’s been a good season but I want to cap it off with what we all want. So that’s my goal. And I hope we can finish it off with being mentioned in one of the top five greatest seasons ever.”

That’s the nature of NASCAR’s playoff format now. If you’re not good in the final race on that final track, then the odds of a championship are low. Just ask Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

Harvick, won nine times in 2020. He didn’t even make it here to this point. He was eliminated in the Round of 8. He also won eight times in 2018 and four more in 2019. He did make the Championship 4 in each. He also had no hardware to show for them either. That’s 21 wins in a three year span with zero championships.

Hamlin, won 13 times between 2019 and 2020. He made the Championship 4 in each. No titles either.

For 35 races, you race one way. For the final one, you race another. All you have to do is beat three other drivers in the final race and the championship is yours. Is it fair for the best driver all year to get to the final race with a championship dream still in tact to see his season labeled as a bust when he did everything right. He just didn’t have the car in the final race.

This championship isn’t an easy one to win because of that. It takes everything you have for one day. Forget all that you’ve done all season before this. It doesn’t matter anymore. That only gets you to this point. Once you’re here, you have to win.

That’s created an immense amount of parity.

“I mean, it’s obviously not a must win, just the way that it is. You got to just beat the other three guys,” Larson said. “Ever since they’ve gone to this format, you’ve had to win to win the championship.

“Yes, I kind of think it is a must win for sure. I definitely think the four of us will be the four at the front. Yeah, I think the winner will be the champion, for sure.”

We’ve had this playoff format since 2014. In the seven years of this, we’ve seen six different champions. In this era, the Cup champion hasn’t won the most races overall in five of the seven.

What’s odd is, it actually pays to have a slower start to a season for some reason. Just last year, Chase Elliott had just one win through the first 22 races. He won the title. In 2018, Joey Logano had one win in the first 32 races but won the championship. Martin Truex Jr. had one trip to victory lane in the first 17 races of the 2017 campaign. He won the championship still. Jimmie Johnson in 2016 was 2-for-29 in 2016 and Harvick 1-for-30 in 2014. They both were champions in those seasons.

Larson, has won nine times, four of which in the playoffs. The thing is, for years, we’ve always wondered if Larson made it to the Final Four at Homestead, then watch out. This was his best track but never in the era of Homestead hosting the championship clinching race, did Larson get to that point with a championship to be won.

Last year, NASCAR moved the championship from Homestead to Phoenix. Larson, was sidelined a year ago for a racial slur used on Easter Night. Hendrick took a chance on him and here he is repaying him with a shot at giving Hendrick his second championship in as many years.

I mean, he’s 0-for-14 now at Phoenix. The champion has won this final race all eight years of this format meaning he’s likely going to have to win. Can he?

He’s had two weeks to think about it. He says that he uses his experiences at the Chili Bowl to help him prepare for this journey to a championship.

“I mean, yes and no. I mean, knowing that we’re — knowing that I have a shot to race for a championship, like the anticipation definitely rises each day. So in a way, yes, I wish we could go to Phoenix tomorrow and get it done and get racing.

“To me, I haven’t lived it yet. We’re not into the week of Phoenix yet. But I feel like Chili Bowl — I always run early in the week. I’ve won however many prelim nights now and then I sit all week and watch all these other racers go out there. I like psych myself out every year like, Man, they look better than I do. They’re fast. It’s going to be hard to beat them and this and that.

“But I think with Phoenix and how this is like we just show up and — well, we get to practice and stuff, but we get to race and all that. I don’t know. I think there’s less time for me to psych myself out because I’m not sitting in the stands watching these guys race.

“I’m still out there racing in these weeks and winning and gaining confidence and all that. So I don’t know if that answers it but I feel like, yeah, I feel like I psych myself out every year at Chili Bowl and I don’t think I’ll do that in this deal.”

Out of his eight wins this season, four came on 750 tracks like this one here this weekend and the other four on 550 tracks. Despite that, he’s been at his best arguably on the 550 races In 12 races on them, Larson had four wins, three runner-up finishes, eight top fives and a top 10 in all but two. The only two he didn’t get a top 10 was in Kansas to where he led 132 of 267 laps and restarted in the top five on the final shootout but was incurred some damage on it. Then, it was Atlanta when he had problems on pit road.

That’s it.

He’s led 1,607 out of 3,247 possible laps (50%) in these 12 races which also accounts for 71% (1,607 out of 2,267) laps led on the season for him. Furthermore, he’s won 11 stages and has been in the top two in 14 of the 23 stages run on these tracks.

Like last year though, the final race is on a 750 track, a type of package that Larson has been good on but mostly on road courses. Among his four wins on 750 tracks, only two were on an actual oval (Nashville, Bristol). He was runner-up though at Darlington (twice), Dover and COTA (road course).

His finishes on short ovals this year – 7th (Phoenix), 5th (Martinsville spring), 18th (Richmond spring), 2nd (Dover), 7th (Loudon), 6th (Richmond playoffs), 1st (Bristol playoffs) and 14th (Martinsville playoffs).

Can he improve at Phoenix when he was only seventh in the spring? He did have four straight top sixes prior but is 0-for-14 there. Chase Elliott was 0-for-9 prior to his win last November so it’s still possible. Plus, he has two extra weeks to prepare his Phoenix car now as a result.

If you wait until Martinsville to know that you’re into the final round, you have less than one week to get your car ready to go. You’d have a car already built for Phoenix, but you didn’t have the extra week or two than the winners before you did to just focus on that car and that car only.

How can you pay extra attention to your Phoenix car for a championship run if you don’t even know if you’re going to be there or not with a chance for a title? You need to prepare your current cars the best that you can. Larson’s car has been prepared for two weeks now.

Another thing is, you get practice this year. We’ve done so in six races (Daytona, Bristol Dirt, COTA, Nashville, Road America and Indianapolis) this year in general. Larson, won one of those races (Nashville), was runner-up at COTA, third in Indianapolis and had a top five going in Road America.

On top of that, he does have a win on a short track and that happened in the playoffs at Bristol. Can he take anything from that too?

Larson is in a good spot for his first career Cup title and becoming the seventh different driver to win a title in the last eight years. He tore up the ranks on short tracks coming up and can earn his maiden NASCAR championship on one.

The thing is, those short tracks he’s dominated on prior were all on dirt. Phoenix is asphalt.

If he doesn’t win though, I don’t necessarily look at Larson’s 2021 season as a failure just because he didn’t win the championship. I mean, does he take solace that he had so much success away from NASCAR too? He won the Chili Bowl. The Kings Royal. The Knoxville Nationals. The BC 39. He also won the Coca-Cola 600 and Bristol Night Race here in Cup too. Does the fact he has all that success help ease the sting?

 “So far I don’t feel any extra pressure. I think that could change once we show up to the racetrack, you see all the cameras on you, all that. We have practice. I think if you’re not fast, then you can feel the pressure. If you’re fast, maybe you feel more pressure.

“As of right now, I don’t feel any different. Like I said, I think it could change later in the week”

Crew Chief Corner: Cliff Daniels

Since making his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series as a Hendrick Motorsport’s crew chief in 2019, Cliff Daniels has shown that he is one of the rising stars in the sport. During his two seasons of full-time competition, Daniels has worked with three different drivers: Jimmie Johnson (2020), Justin Allgaier (2020) and Kyle Larson (2021). But it wasn’t until this season he earned a spot in the Playoffs and won nine races. This weekend at Phoenix will mark his first appearance in the Championship 4, his previous best finish in the final Cup standings was 18th with driver Jimmie Johnson in 2020. 

 

The Larson-Daniel pair has combined for the following achievements in 35 NASCAR Cup Series races together:

  • 9 wins
  • 19 top fives
  • 25 top 10s
  • 2,474 laps led
  • 1 pole
  • One NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearance (2021)
  • One NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances (2021)

 

The two will look to capture their first NASCAR Cup Series championship together this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. If they accomplish the feat, Daniels will become the 42nd different crew chief in the series with a championship.

 

Adding to the historic legacy of Hendrick Motorsports

When it comes to winning titles in the NASCAR Cup Series, no organization does it better than Hendrick Motorsports with their series leading 13 championships among four drivers – Chase Elliott (2020), Jimmie Johnson (2016, ’13, ’10, ’09, ’08, ’07, ’06), NASCAR Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon (2001, ’98, ’97, ’95) and Terry Labonte (1996).

 

Overall Hendrick Motorsports has 16 NASCAR national series owner championships, the all-time record in NASCAR.

 

And to boot, Hendrick Motorsports was the first organization in the series history to win four straight, from 1995-98 (Jeff Gordon in 1995 and 1997-98; Terry Labonte 1996). And then upped their record in the series with five straight, from 2006-2010 (Jimmie Johnson). Hendrick Motorsports has won 13 of the last 26 NASCAR Cup Series championships (1995-2020), putting the team’s title-winning percentage during that span at 50% – series-best.

 

But the 2021 season has been extra special with what the Hendrick Motorsports organization has been able accomplish. Heading into Phoenix this weekend, Hendrick Motorsports has earned 16 NASCAR Cup Series wins in 2021; Hendrick Motorsports’ second-most in a single season and third-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972-Present). 2021 is the organization’s 36th straight season with a victory; longest-ever streak by a team in the series and its 37th season overall with a win; the most-ever by a team in the series. Plus, Hendrick Motorsports swept first and second in seven races this season; tied for the second-most all-time and most by a team in NASCAR’s Modern Era. They also became one of two teams in Cup Series history to finish 1-2 in four straight races (between Dover and Sonoma). And to top all of that, the organization became the all-time wins leader in the NASCAR Cup Series with 279 total Cup wins – lead all other teams by 11 victories. Kyle Larson’s win in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway broke the all-time record previously held by Petty Enterprises (268 wins).

 

The Hendrick Motorsport’s foursome of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman also became the only team in NASCAR’s Modern Era to win six straight races (between Dover and Pocono) and

the only team in Cup history to have all four Cup cars entered in a race sweep the top-four finishes positions (Dover). They also became the first team in history with four winners under age 30 in a single season.

 

This season Hendrick Motorsports led a combined 3,918 laps; fifth-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972)-Present); 100 laps led away from a new Hendrick Motorsports team record (4,017 in 2009). Junior Johnson and Associates holds the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era organization record for the most laps led in a single season with 4,296.

 

Hendrick Motorsports 2021 dominance doesn’t end there, they also posted 32 finishes inside the top two; currently tied with Joe Gibbs Racing (2019) for the most in the Modern Era (since 1972), scored 81 top-10 finishes; the team’s third-most (84 in 2007, 82 in 2012), posted 53 top-five finishes; the team’s second-most (57 in 2007) and won 27 stages; had only won 33 prior to 2021. 

 

Since the inception of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2004, the 2021 is the first time Hendrick Motorsports has placed two drivers in the Championship 4 Round (Elliott, Larson). Impressively, Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one Playoff race in each of the 17 Playoff seasons (since 2004) for a combined 52 postseason wins, most all-time.

 

Kyle Larson can add to the legacy of Hendrick Motorsports this weekend by winning the title and extending the organization’s record in series championships. If he accomplishes the feat, he will be the organization’s fifth different driver that has earned a NASCAR Cup Series championship. In total, 13 different organizations have won at Phoenix Raceway in the NASCAR Cup Series, led by Hendrick Motorsports with 11 victories. 

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