Cliff Daniels essentially gave his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team a kick in the ass before Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
No longer eligible for the championship, it was time to lay everything out on the table. To face the mistakes that played into their elimination in the Round of 12 and take a hard look at how many times they’ve been their own worst enemy. It happened in a pre-race gathering – driver Kyle Larson included – where Daniels gave an admittedly colorful speech.
“If you look at the 5 car throughout the course of the season, we’ve had great cars. So, on performance, we have not been down,” Daniels said. “It’s been execution. It’s execution from me, the guys on pit road, Kyle at times, and we’ve had so many fast cars that I’ve been getting frustrated showing up at the racetrack knowing that we’re going to have another fast car and even having a sliver of doubt of our execution – because I know that our team when we’re at our full potential, we have a lot of potential.”
Larson has laid plenty of blame on himself for making mistakes this season. A mistake he made at the Charlotte Roval, hitting the wall and breaking a toe link, ultimately cost him a spot in the third round. Larson said afterwards that it was proof he still has to improve after having a 2021 in which everything went right.
The ’22 playoffs have not gone well for Larson and his team. They cannot defend their driver’s championship (they are still eligible for the owners’ championship) and had three top-10 finishes in the first seven playoff races. Daniels honed in on driving home the point about their playoff performance.
“I went through our playoffs and how many mistakes that we’ve made since the start of the playoffs and how many of those things have been in our hands that we have had control over and we just haven’t,” said Daniels. “It really it starts with me; we haven’t done a great job of grasping.
“My words [today] were focus and discipline, and it takes a lot of focus and a lot of discipline to run the fence for all the laps that he did, and it takes a lot of focus and discipline to go through seven or eight pit stops like we did today, and the guys had a phenomenal day on pit road.
“That was really the moral of it because he knows we’ve had great race cars, I know we’ve had great race cars and for whatever reason, somewhere along the way, it’s been a little mistake over here in this department. Then we’d fix that and we’d come back over here and have a little mistake over here, over here, over here, and we just needed a day to get it all right, and finally, we did.”
You know how the group responded. Larson “kicked their [expletive] ass” in the Dixie Vodka 400. There were no mistakes as Larson swept all three stages and led 199 of 267 laps. On pit road, the team continually got him off in a quick manner to either hold their position or retake the race lead.
Larson put on a clinic of running the fence, the key to success at Homestead. Homestead is a Larson track, and he’s been long overdue for a win, but given his propensity for mistakes this year, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him fence his Chevrolet and ruin his day.
But he did. Well, Larson did get it against the wall a few times, but as he said in his post-race interview, the Next Gen is tough enough that it didn’t end his day like in years past.
“It did everything I wanted it to against the wall,” Larson said. “The ride quality was great into [Turn] 3. It turned where I needed it to turn on entry so I could carry speed. It turned on exit, so I could just stay committed to the throttle. It wasn’t too loose on exit or too tight where I had to bail out of the throttle at all. It was a good car to go along with the comfort, I guess that I have up there.”
Sunday was another example in the curious case of Larson and the No. 5 team. Wait for something to bite them or for it to be self-inflicted, but if nothing goes wrong, then what they did is what is expected from them. But this is a season when you don’t know which team is going show up on any given weekend.
Daniels is touted as one of the best leaders in the garage, which he showed Sunday. Given all that has happened to his team this year, time will tell if it’s the turning point they needed.
“It means a lot,” Daniels said of winning after a tough few weeks. “It means a lot to the team, because, like I was just alluding to, we have such a core group and a lot of strength in our group. I told them all if we do our job, at our worst, we’re going to be really good and if we do our job, at our best we’re going to be great. So that’s the window, really good to great if we would just do our job, and we did today.
“It means a lot to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports who have been giving us fast race cars all year long. I know it means a lot to Mr. H. I don’t think it quite sank into him yet when we were talking about it in Victory Lane that we were locked into the owner’s deal in Phoenix. But yeah, the Roval was disappointing to get knocked out of the driver championship. But to have the reflection on the team be that we’re still in it, we’ve had a very character-building year, and we’ve had to be tough through the adversity and learn from our mistakes to still be in it and have a lot is pretty special.”