By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
LAS VEGAS – What happens in Vegas, tends to stay there. But the spectacle of dominance displayed by the No. 5 team throughout the South Point 400 has potential to be a defining moment in Kyle Larson’s legacy forever.
After finishing runner-up in all facets at the 1.5-mile track in the spring, it became clear “Lady Luck” was going to need “Yung Money” this time around in Sin City. Picking up where he left off, Larson started the race from P2, but then went on to lead a race-high 133 laps and sweep both stages with an average running position of second.
On paper, it may have seemed like a Sunday drive for Larson. However, he was able to battle through numerous adversities thanks to a complete and unrelenting team effort – the hallmark of the 31-year-old’s success since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2021.
With five cautions outside of stage breaks and the looming unpredictability of tire failures, this win came down to management, strategy and pit-road prowess – all of which the No. 5 team exemplifies.
Throughout the entire afternoon, crew chief Cliff Daniels orchestrated a pitch-perfect plan and followed through with conviction, even as the three Joe Gibbs Racing teams in the Playoffs went opposite directions in favor of track position predominantly.
In the shades of their championship-winning performance in Phoenix two years ago, the No. 5 team delivered on the money stop with a service that proved to be the difference-maker between victory and runner-up for a second-straight race in Vegas.
Winning the race off pit road by less than a nose over fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski, Larson reaped the benefits of clean air on a pair of restarts as the field fought for positions behind him.
Even with how dominant Larson was, his margin of victory over Christopher Bell – who exited the pits third – was only 0.082 seconds. Thus, without the excellence of his crew, we could be talking about a much different outcome in Vegas.
“I love cautions and I love pit stops,” Larson said with a smile following his fourth win of the season. “I look forward to coming down pit road right now, because I know my guys can get me out in front. I have got a ton of confidence in (them) and they showed today why they’re one of the best on pit road.”
Those guys are: Blaine Anderson (front-tire changer), RJ Barnette (tire carrier), Calvin Teague (rear-tire changer), Brandon Johnson (jackman), Brandon Harder (fueler).
With the exception of Anderson, who was in back-up role on the team at the time, these are four of the core pit crew members notorious for executing arguably the most infamous money stop in the sport’s history, which put Larson in position to win the championship at Phoenix in 2021.
“There’s a lot of experience on the team, which I think is very valuable,” Daniels said. “Guys who’ve been in the moment (have) been in that situation before. We set our standard very high. We set our expectations very high.”
Looking back at Larson’s first title run, everyone remembers the race-winning service at Phoenix. However, many are quick to forget the heroics displayed leading up to the finale – specifically, at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL to cap the Round of 12.
Early in Stage Two, the No. 5 succumbed to electrical issues in which the alternator had to be swapped out. Not only was the part able to be replaced without Larson losing a lap, he went on to win this race – and the next two – en route to the 2021 title.
This resilience, coupled with the crew’s ability to routinely deliver in these high-pressure situations, is what sets apart good from great and breeds success.
While the racing world has seen what happens when all goes right, nobody’s perfect. Not even the No. 5 team, for as easy as they’ve made it look over the past few years.
As Larson pointed out, 2022 didn’t mark a particularly dominant year for his team as they navigated the nuances of Next Gen pit stops. During these growing pains, including a detached wheel at Sonoma Raceway, and untraditional off weeks, Daniels cites accountability and the willingness to learn as to what separates their team apart from the rest.
“For a caliber group like that, where their experience speaks for itself, their accomplishments speak for themselves, they do a great job of continuing to be hungry for more,” Daniels said. “Continuing to learn. Continuing to get better. Nobody rests on the wins of the past or the experience of the past.
“What makes it a great combination on the money stop is when you piece together that endeavor to continue to improve, plus the experience. They know how to have ice water in their veins and just get it done.”
With only two races remaining until the finale, don’t expect Larson and the team to completely shift focus to Phoenix. In 2021, while it helped having additional time to prepare for the finale itself, a large part of that was keeping momentum and focusing on weekly execution from the top-down.
Keep in mind, not only did Larson win the cutoff race in the Round of 12 and the first-two events in the semi-final set during his championship-winning season, he was also victorious at Martinsville Speedway this year.
While Phoenix will be a heavy point of emphasis the next few weeks, knowing they’re the only team officially in the Championship 4, Larson is shifting focus to ripping the highline at Homestead-Miami Speedway and tormenting the competition once again.
Anything can happen over the next two races, but if this No. 5 team continues to gel, the remaining championship hopefuls will have their work cut out for them.
“You really can’t look too far ahead of yourself,” Larson said. “There’s still two other races before (Phoenix). I put a lot of pressure on myself going to Homestead. I want to dominate, honestly. I want to win both stages by 15 seconds and win the race by 30 (smiling). That’s my goal.”