AVONDALE, Ariz. – Kyle Larson’s hunt for a second career NASCAR Cup Series championship came with a roller coaster of emotions.
Early in the race, Larson couldn’t catch his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, but a faster pit stop gave him the edge in the middle of the race.
He would be passed by Ryan Blaney until a late race caution brought the field back down pit road. Another fast pit stop put him ahead of the other championship contenders.
But Blaney was able to reel him back in and drive into the Arizona sunset for his first career championship.
“His car was really fast,” shared Larson after the championship race at Phoenix Raceway. “Our pit crew and pit road really kept us in the game. We weren’t the greatest on the track, but I was just hoping for pit stops because I knew the way our team executed our lights, the way our pit crew can execute a fast pit stop, I knew that was going to be our only shot really to win.”
The late race restart saw two drivers — Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones — implement a differing strategy with just two fresh tires instead of four. Eventual race winner Ross Chastain was able to quickly get by to inherit the lead, but Larson tried to get by him in the early laps to no avail.
“(The pit crew) did everything in their power to give us the winning job done there. Huge thank you to them,” Larson continued. “I needed to come out the leader on that restart. Ross got a really good start from the second row. Was hoping I could get clear of Denny and get the lead, have Ross kind of protect for me behind me.
“I’m not sure if it would have made a difference. I was just not as good as a few guys, especially Blaney and Ross probably.”
Blaney passed Larson with 15 laps to go, forcing Larson into learning mode as quickly as possible. He tried to learn where Blaney was strong than him and any potential weaknesses, but time ran out as the checkered flag waved for the final time in 2023.
“I tried to take as much as I could in one and two just to see if I could to anything because he was a lot faster.”
Indicative of Friday night, the Championship 4 drivers of the Cup Series displayed tremendous talent and mutual respect across the entire field. While there was some aggression across a few battles, the race stayed clean. Larson recognized that and returned the favor when racing Blaney for the championship.
“He was behind me a number of times throughout the race, never touched me,” said the 2021 series champion. “I would say for me — my respect level — it started with him. He raced with a lot of respect early on in the race. He always has, too. It was fun watching Ryan and William and (Christopher) Bell kind of when he was still out there us all racing hard.
“Congrats to Ryan. He’s a deserving champion. Him and his team have done an amazing job. It’s been fun to kind of come up through the ranks with him, now you see him be a champion.”
The curtain closes on a successful year for the No. 5 Chevrolet team. Larson already has the crown in mind and prepares himself to chase it once again in 2024.
“We’ll try and beat ’em next year.”