Kyle Larson and the No.5 Hendrick Motorsports team had what was likely a once-in-a-lifetime championship season last year.
They dominated across the board from stage and race wins, laps led and top-10 finishes. A championship in his first season driving for Rick Hendrick capped off his incredible year.
Larson and company were unlikely to keep up the same pace in 2022. Sunday’s triumph at Watkins Glen was just his second victory of the season, his first since late February. And as the regular season comes to an end, it isn’t Larson labeled as the favorite and claiming the regular season championship.
While two wins and being second in points with 13 playoff points is nothing to sneeze at, it’s certainly different to a year ago. For a high-intensity, perhaps even anxiety-ridden crew chief like Cliff Daniels, it’s put him in an interesting leadership position.
“It’s been tough, and a lot of that I’ve got to say starts with me,” Daniels admitted on Sunday night. “I’m the leader of the team; I help coach him, the pit crew, the road crew, and all the guys at the shop. There are a lot of different areas that I have to cover.
“I’m very, I would say, happy and pleased with the prep that we put into putting a fast race car on track, and how to look at our strategy, and how to look at all the different things until we get to the moment.
“And [then] in the moment, for whatever reason or another, all summer, we’ve kind of been plagued by like one little mistake here or there. If it’s been a pit call or a pit stop or a restart or some little thing that has impacted our day and kept us from getting a good finish.”
Larson was ninth in points leaving the Coca-Cola 600. In the 10 races after Charlotte that led into Watkins Glen, Larson had led 55 laps with four top-10 finishes.
“I take a lot of that to heart,” said Daniels. “We have a lot of very honest conversations within our team of what we have to do … when you have one of the best drivers, if not the best driver in the world and all the talent in our team that we had last year, and all of the folks at Hendrick Motorsports giving us great cars and engines, and all the things that they have given us, it really does boil down to execution.
“I will say the Next Gen car has presented a completely different challenge for executing a race, managing tire falloff, managing strategy, a lot of things that we wanted it to bring about.
“I certainly own the share of mistakes that I’ve made in that, and we continue to kind of keep a tally – in a healthy way – to say hey, here was a missed opportunity, here is what that looked like, here is the supporting evidence to look for the next time to not make that same mistake again.”
Watkins Glen was one of the team’s best weekends with execution. Larson was fastest in practice and qualified second. Given an opportunity on the last restart when teammate Chase Elliott took the left lane, Larson capitalized by forcing his way through in Turn 1 to the lead and the win.
“I’m very proud of the team,” Daniels said. “Proud of [Larson] because we needed kind of that token of confidence to say we brought another fast race car to the track this week, can we keep it up front, can we execute the race and have a shot at the end? If you have a shot at the end and you get a chance to capitalize, he did a great job [Sunday], and we did it, so I’m very thankful for that.”
To put a bow on the regular season, Daniels said Larson and the No.5 team want a clean superspeedway race at Daytona.
“We’re going to try to be smart, be a good teammate to the Chevrolet guys, to the Hendrick guys how and when we can,” said Daniels, “and certainly, we have to protect ourselves and make sure we have a shot at the end.”