From the day it was announced that Kyle Larson had signed with Hendrick Motorsports, the expectation was that he’d end up in victory lane. But that Larson did so in just his fourth race with the organization brought a sense of amazement to all those involved.
“Surprised? Maybe a little,” crew chief Cliff Daniels said. “But when Kyle and I first connected over the winter, we knew there was going to be a path to get us here.”
Larson claimed the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his seventh victory in the NASCAR Cup Series. But it is the first win for Daniels as a crew chief. Daniels spent the 2020 season working with Jimmie Johnson, trying to send the seven-time champion out on a high note, but the team struggled to find consistency.
So far, Larson and Daniels haven’t had that problem, despite not having practice and qualifying. But while Daniels and Larson have not had many opportunities to build a notebook, the team spends its time in the shop wisely by poring through notes, data, and video.
A fourth-place finish at Homestead was the catalyst for Larson’s run in Las Vegas. Daniels said the team was a little bit off last weekend, but it helped them make changes to their package.
“Obviously, it worked out,” he said. “Doesn’t always work out like that. Just so thankful for our team, everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, for Mr. H, for believing in us. What a cool day.”
During his time away from stock car racing, Larson wondered if he’d ever get the opportunity to not only race, but win again. Signing with Hendrick gave Larson back the confidence he could win at the premier level. Aside from the Daytona road course, Larson has finished in the top-10 in every event since his return.
“I’m surprised that we started the year off this good,” Larson said. “I thought that we would have some struggle moments – maybe we still will – but I definitely didn’t think we would come out and be as good as we have been. I’d hoped that we would be going like this, but I just didn’t know, especially with not having practice, things like that. You don’t know.
“They’re not used to my driving style being different than what they’re used to, and things like that. A lot of unknowns really going into a new team, with the way the schedule is. But it’s been great. I knew from the very first lap of this race that we were going to have a fast car. We just kept up with the racetrack. The pit crew did an awesome job all day, like they have done all year. That’s what put us in position to win.”
Rick Hendrick is no stranger to talented drivers, and he’s watched Larson enough over the years to know Larson can get the job done. But he, too, didn’t expect the success to happen so soon.
“I didn’t really expect for it to come this quick because I just thought it would take more time to gel, but our cars are fast,” Hendrick said. “He’s a champion, really. I’m so lucky to have him. Cliff is just a great young man. To win in the fourth race, especially when you don’t have any practice, you just show up and race; it’s really been awesome.
“I think they’re going to have a lot of success together this year. If you look back at the road course, he had a shot to win that. If you show up and you run well, that’s half the battle. Nobody doubts Kyle’s ability.”
Larson is the quickest driver to win with Hendrick Motorsports. Doing so in his fourth start eclipsed the previous benchmark set by Terry Labonte, who won in his seventh start with the team back in 1994.