Kyle Larson’s latest mistake Sunday afternoon at the Charlotte Roval was the costliest one — ending his NASCAR Cup Series championship defense.
Contact with the wall off Turn 7 broke the right rear toe link in Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He came to pit road with 12 laps to go and, at the time, was well above the playoff cutline. As such, crew chief Cliff Daniels told the team to repair the car to ensure they finished the race.
Larson fell multiple laps down and out of control of his destiny. Taking the blame for hitting the wall and putting the team in that spot, he praised his group for their quick work but knew he was along for the ride as far as the point battle went.
“Just a dumb mistake on my part,” Larson said.
The battle for the final spot came down to Larson, Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Briscoe prevailed in the last lap with the additional spots he earned as the No. 5 dropped to 35th.
Larson acknowledged it’s been a bit of a missed opportunity season. The reigning series champion had two wins coming into the playoffs, as well as six DNFs.
“It’s frustrating to end like this, but as up and down as I was this season, I’m not surprised I made another mistake, and a costly one at an important time,” Larson said.
“It’s been tough,” he also said of his season. “There’s been no real rhythm to it for me and our team. But we fought hard all year to get better, and we’re going to continue to fight and continue to work hard to be better for the rest of the season, as well as being more prepared for next year.
“It’s days like today that you can take positives from…and really focus on areas that you need to be better as a person, and as a driver, and as a team and come back stronger.”
A year ago, Larson, Daniels and the No. 5 team were the rightful Cup Series champions with their domination across the series. Larson led the way in every statistical category in 2021 and made it look easy for some.
Daniels, though, takes issue with that.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said Sunday. “Don’t even come at me with easy. Don’t even. Uh-uh. Win 10 races, plus the All-Star, lead 2,500 laps in a year. That ain’t easy.
“There’s a lot of weight loss and time not at home with kids and not sleeping and not eating. There was nothing easy about winning 10 races and dominating the season. Let that point stand.”
Well, then, given how impressive the ’21 season was, it was the opposite for the team this year. Larson repeatedly said he’d made mistakes behind the wheel in addition to the team’s gremlins. It leaves Daniels to admit it was a battle to defend the title this season.
“Climbing uphill when we shouldn’t have had to climb uphill,” he said. “The new car is a challenge for everyone; everyone had the same set of challenges ahead of them, and so many of the things we did right along the way, and it would just be some ridiculous mistake, whether it was on pit road, a mistake I made, a mistake he made… Again, we had mechanical failures this year that just can’t happen. That all adds up.”
Two cautions occurred after Larson made his pit stop for repairs and fell off the lead. Daniels saw the field was “pretty strung out” and was confident there’d be no caution and Larson would advance by the points he saw on his screen. But a debris caution flew with six laps to go.
“All you can go off of is the information that’s ahead of you… The information that was in front of me when I hopped back up on the pix box and we’re [at five laps to go], and the field is still under green [was]: we’re seven points to the good,” said Daniels. “So, it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re OK.’ Then the caution changes the world. It is what it is.”
The race restarted with three laps to go and another caution followed. In the chaotic ending, Larson had no positions to gain as his rivals did. Instead, Larson just tried to keep Daniel Suarez behind him should he need that point.
Larson ended up missing the transfer spot by two points to Briscoe.
“It’s tough to have a championship-caliber team and know you’re not going to be able to go race for a championship,” Larson said. “Cliff is an extremely good leader — a great leader — and he’s going to continue to hold [us] to a high standard and continue to push us along throughout the rest of the season and throughout the offseason to where we’re in much better shape for next year.
“It’s definitely tough moments like today that’s going to shape our team into contending again next year.”
Larson also looked inward.
“I learned there’s still a lot of areas to get a lot better and smarter again,” he said of himself. “Just doing a better job. Everything last year seemed to be good [and] I was on my game and things were working out — restarts, everything.
“Just every area was better as far as the driver goes last year. So just have to figure out how to do that and get back to that point.”