By Justin Schuoler, Staff Writer
LAS VEGAS – In a race dominated by William Byron, a quick shuffle of the cards turned into Kyle Larson’s favor in the closing laps of the Pennzoil 400.
But a late caution and a flip of the script on pit road, Larson lost the late bet on the river with a runner up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Bryon edged him in the race off pit road, which ended up being the determining factor for the race win. There was nothing Larson could do on the restart, being caught behind Martin Truex Jr. who stayed out on old tires in hopes to make some magic happen.
“We needed to be about five feet further up than what we were at the exit of the commitment line and beat William off pit road and probably would have won,” Larson shared after the third round of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season. “Proud of the effort, proud of the car. We executed pretty well all day and the 24’s pit stop was better than ours there at the end. Bummed but all in all, we needed a good run today, second in all three stages and good points day.”
Despite high winds and cause for some concern across the garage, the race stayed mostly tame. In fact, the one driver that said to “hang on” from Saturday’s Media Day was the one driver that crashed across the frontstretch grass. An 81 lap, 77 lap and 75 lap triad of green flag runs stretched out the field through the majority of the race. Those long runs with no breaks in between came to no surprise to Larson, who won the series’ last visit to a mile and a half circuit at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year.
“It was pretty high grip today with the cool temperatures, so I didn’t think you’d have too many people spinning out today,” he continued. “I wasn’t surprised and felt like we had a good day. William had a pit stop there — he was the car I thought to beat — and I hadn’t spent any time behind Alex (Bowman) but I thought he was going to be really good too. William was able to restart behind us and then we beat Alex to the lead, getting by the 11.
“Then I felt like if I could just lead the rest of the way like we were going to, we were going to get the win but it just didn’t work out.”
The three Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished first, second and third to sweep the podium. The fourth driver of Chase Elliott is out indefinitely after a snowboarding injury in Colorado. Relief driver Josh Berry made his first career start in the NextGen car and made strides throughout the day, but contact with the outside wall relegated him to a 29th place result. Still, Larson holds his head high knowing his team needed a solid finish to build momentum. The problem is that the tracks coming up next on the schedule behave significantly different.
“I don’t know, I hope (we build momentum),” Larson shrugged. “We were just a couple laps away from winning here like in 2021. Who knows, but there’s a lot of tough competitors and we go to a totally different style race track next week so it could be a different story.”
Larson’s finish moved him 10 positions up the championship standings to 14th. The series finishes their west coast swing at Phoenix Raceway next weekend, which Larson won in the fall of 2021 for his first championship at NASCAR’s top level. It could be that the 2021 champion has found his 2021 ways once again.