AVONDALE, AZ — Kyle Larson had the fastest race car all season. He’s the champion in the end by being victorious in the 2021 season finale at the Phoenix Raceway. The thing is, Larson wasn’t the fastest when it mattered the most. One could say the two Joe Gibbs Racing cars were.
“Absolutely not, no, we were terrible halfway through the race,” Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels said on if they were the best car on Sunday. “We were — terrible is a strong word, but 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.
“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.”
Martin Truex Jr. or Denny Hamlin arguably had the best cars overall. They were in position to win it in the end if not for the two late cautions.
“Yeah, I mean, for us we had just a solid day. We hung around right there where we needed to be, had a really good car, especially on the long runs early in the race,” Truex Jr. said. “Track position was tough. Seemed like whoever was out front could drive away for 30, 40 laps and then you’d kind of race from there on until the end of the run.
“It seemed like we were pretty good.
“Felt like all of us were really equally matched, honestly. We were all really good, really fast. Whoever got out front seemed to be good on the short run, and then long run it was kind of back and forth between everybody all day it seemed like.
“We just didn’t have the short run speed all day, and then certainly with 20 to go it’s going to be hard to pass anybody out front in clean air.
“I think if we would have had the lead, we could have held him off. But hindsight is 20/20, and we didn’t have the lead, so here we are.”
Hamlin didn’t have the speed early, but by the midway mark of the final stage, he had the car to beat from then forward. The problem was, those two cautions flew and the long run pace that they had an advantage on was now gone.
“Yeah, I mean, with every lap we just kept reeling the 19 and 5 in,” Hamlin said. “I had to get back around the 9. Once we did that, we just started making hay towards the front.”
Hamlin was second and charging hard to the lead before Anthony Alfredo crashed on Lap 249. It came down to pit stops and restarts and Hamlin’s team just didn’t have it in comparison to the others.
“Track position just means so much. It doesn’t matter, big spoiler, small spoiler. These cars just put off such a big wake. We don’t have the horsepower we used to be. 750 is probably down 150 from where we used to be. So track position, no matter what racetrack, is just a big, big deal.
“You kind of know like when someone gets a restart and controls the race late, it’s so hard. You’re going to need them to really make a huge mistake.”
A mistake wasn’t going to be made. These drivers are in the Championship 4 for a reason.
“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,” Chase Elliott said.
That car out front?
Young money got a money stop from his pit crew. It was the second quickest pit stop of the entire 2021 season. He exited pit road first in the final stop of the race and now had clean air and the lead on the restart. With only having 24 laps to the finish, Larson could overcome what they said was the third or fourth best car and help it to victory lane for the 10th time of the year.
“My crew chief kept telling me how bad the 5 car was handling,” Hamlin continued.” You could see he was just plowing, but the clean air made up for any deficiencies in that setup.”
Rick Hendrick agreed.
“We were just fortunate to have that caution, and the guys just knocked out a really good stop and we were able to hold them off,” he said.
That’s not the story though. You have to dig deeper. Larson’s championship was due to Cliff Daniels’ eagerness to learn Kyle Larson. They were paired together with Hendrick Motorsports and in order for Daniels and Larson to click, Daniels went to school — dirt racing school.
He was an asphalt guy by nature but Larson is a short track dirt guy. In order to learn what his driver would need on a Cup car, he first had to learn what makes him click on dirt.
But, in order to go to school, he first had to have a school to go to. Larson, had to get clearance from Hendrick to race on dirt. That’s something Mr. H wasn’t to keen on for his drivers doing in the past. In fact, Larson met with Jeff Gordon before he even got into the sport on potentially joining Hendrick Motorsports around a decade ago.
Larson, a hot shoe dirt racer, was looking to make a jump to stock cars. He visited all the North Carolina shops and had a meeting at HMS with Gordon. The first thing Gordon told him?
Transition away from dirt.
Larson felt defeated. Most owners didn’t want him racing on that surface away from Cup due to the potential dangers. The ones that didn’t care wanted him to bring a couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He didn’t have money. He didn’t want to give up dirt either.
Chip Ganassi obliged to keeping the dirt extra curricular activities alive but also didn’t require him bring money.
Fast forward to know – Larson’s a champion, still racing on dirt and grew up learning NASCAR on Ganassi’s dime not Hendrick’s.
So, why the change in philosophies to allow Larson to race on dirt?
Larson asked and he did so while shaking in fear at the answer he’d hear after. See, Larson used a racial slur which cost him his job and all of his sponsors on Easter Night 2020. He rebuilt his image and won 46 times on the national dirt scene in the process.
Hendrick offered to sign him to his NASCAR team for 2021. The thing is, Larson knew he didn’t have much leverage in any negotiations. I mean, what other options would he have and for what better team?
He asked anyways.
“Yeah, you know, when you talk to a driver and you know in his heart that it’s really important to him, and I told him, I said, Look, I don’t want you to get hurt. He said, It makes me better. It keeps me sharp. He said, I think it helps me in the Cup car. So I just agreed to let him do it,” Hendrick said.
“You know, of course you have reservations, but he convinced me he wasn’t going to get hurt. I’m going to hold him to that.
“Well, you know, he agreed. We talked about it. He said, When we get in the playoffs, I’m going to back off, and he did. I think his focus was he wants to win races. He wants to — the Cup deal is his main job, and he knows that.
“He wants to win every race.
“He convinced me, and I think Cliff and I talked about it. And we talked to him about it, and we said, Now, we don’t want you getting in late in the middle of the night to get in a Cup car. If you want to run during the week, you can do that.
“It all worked out.”
So, Daniels went to school to learn his new driver and what makes him so good. To do so, you have to witness his greatness on dirt and hope to apply that to asphalt.
“The first thing that I would say, he (Larson) grew up dirt racing out west. I grew up pavement racing on the East Coast. You literally could not get farther apart on the spectrum of racing,” Daniels said.
“The connection that we had was our passion for racing, so yes, I grew up pavement racing on the East Coast, very specific types of racing, very specific way that you progress through the different series. So that was what I was accustomed to.
“Then getting to know him, there was this entire different world of dirt racing that I had really only had small exposure to, some friends in college, maybe some friends in high school a little bit that I kind of learned there, but I took it upon myself to consider myself the weak link between the two of us and that I needed to learn the discipline of dirt racing and get to know Kevin Rumley that was his late model crew chief, get to know Paul Silva, his sprint car crew chief, which I’m very thankful I got to know both of those guys.
“I went to late model races, I went to midget races, I went to sprint car races just to learn that discipline to understand the language that they speak and to understand when he says that racing three or four nights a week makes him better, what does that mean? What does that look like?
“I know Mr. H talked about that having him not race during the playoffs was a little bit of a safety factor for us, but honestly I was kind of worried for the opposite, because he raced all season long during the week, and when we won our — we were Turn 3 at Pocono away from winning five weekends in row, it would have been the fourth points race but five weekends in a row. He was racing two or three nights a week then, and I was getting so much information from him about himself, like he was up front every night, and if he got beat by somebody on a restart, he would tell me what he did wrong.
“And it would help me learn what he needed to look for out of himself and out of the car, whether dirt or pavement or any series moving forward. So that information to me was really invaluable because I don’t know how else I would have gotten it.
“Even if we had Cup practice and Cup qualifying, I would not have seen Kyle Larson on the front row of some race getting beat by anybody that he could then tell me, Hey, man, when this guy beat me, this is what I did wrong, and I could see this playing out in a Cup race or sprint race or late model race or whatever.
“That perspective for me taught me a lot so that when we talked during the week of our approach for a Cup race, not only the Cup race in its entirety, but like, Hey, man, how do you win the last restart? How do you set up a guy to pass for the win, whether it’s at the end of a playoff race or not, championship race or not, how do you position yourself? How do I make adjustments to the car? How does he see what he needs to see? That meant so much to me throughout the year.
“I know it did to him. I don’t know that he recognized it at first, that I was learning that much from him; but later in the year, especially in the playoffs, he knew the page that I was on, kind of learning from him and, again, trying to understand that world and understand him more, that I could put underneath of him what he needed to go get it done.
“We were the third or the fourth place car for most of the day today. For the final restart, we made a handful of adjustments, had an amazing pit stop, and our car held off everyone in the field for the final run of the race. Well, I made a lot of adjustments to do that because I knew what he needed, if that makes sense.
All of that — I know I’m rambling a bit, but all of that led us to that final pit stop, those final adjustments to get it done today.”
That’s Part 1.
Part II is qualifying on Friday. Larson made light note of that it’s not really going to matter here. This was the first time since August that we’ve qualifying and he and the other Championship 4 drivers didn’t really think practice or qualifying would come into play.
Boy were they wrong.
By earning the pole on Saturday, Larson got to pick the first pit stall. They chose stall No. 1. The one that was the advantage on Sunday.
“He’s responsible for sitting on the pole, which is stall 1. Stall 1 is responsible for part of the equation that led to the last pit stop,” Daniels continued. “90 percent of the equation was the guys having an amazing stop. 10 percent of the equation was stall 1. And then the last 25 laps I would attribute a lot to him because he knew what he needed to do up front.
“I told him when we were standing on the stage in Victory Lane, I told him, Man, your patience, when you got out front — and no, the car wasn’t perfect, but he knew how to not miss a corner and miss his line and overrun himself to then have a good exit, maintain his pace ahead of Martin. That was pretty crucial.
“Yes, we had some adjustments in the car. Absolutely we had an amazing stop. But I think if it weren’t for his maturity as a driver, not only is he one of the greatest talents in the world currently, but I think he’s now set himself at a level where people can consider him an incredibly smart racer. I think that was the difference at the end.”
Daniels said that the qualifying homework was done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and a little bit Thursday on qualifying.
“But none while we were at the track, which sounds crazy to say,” Daniels said. “We knew on Tuesday that we were going to do top 3 and 4 coming to the green, which we did. We were going to run top 1 and 2 on the money lap, which was lap 1, and then just pray, and 3 and 4, which is exactly what he did, and we got a pole by a tenth and a half.
“So the plan that we established on Tuesday for how to go qualify is exactly what Larson executed, which is just incredible.
“Honestly, that had nothing to do with the car, that was all him.
“It all came down to the final pit stop. And I have always pushed our guys so hard back at the shop, the guys working on the car, the guys pitting the car, and to see them shine in a moment where they could shine I think is just incredible. And then of course Kyle on the restart and really all day long Kyle staying in the game was just incredible.”