Kyle Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports team gambled on a late race two-tire pit stop to give him a fighting chance for the victory, and he took the opportunity and drove away to a commanding 4.142s win in Sunday’s NOCO 400 NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
It was the 2021 Champion’s first victory at the famed half-mile track; making the pass for the win in his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy with 30 laps remaining, but then having to hold off another past champion Joey Logano, whose runner-up finish Sunday was also impressive considering he started at the rear of the field after a post-qualifying adjustment to his No. 22 Team Penske Ford.
Where did he come from??
Kyle Larson to the lead with less than 30 laps to go!
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— NASCAR (@NASCAR) April 16, 2023
“I feel like (crew chief Cliff Daniels) and everybody did a great job all day on pit road, making the right calls and having great pit stops and it all kind of worked out for me there at the end. We had a great car. That was the best my car had been,’’ said Larson, whose final 30 laps out front were the only laps he led on the day.
It marks the second win of the season for the 30-year-old Californian Larson who joins his teammate William Byron as the only multiple race winners on the year.
That late-race pit gamble for Larson was indicative of a dramatic final few laps when pit strategy played a big role in the race. Logano was one of four drivers who did not pit on a caution flag with 56 laps remaining, choosing to take track position instead after he’d gone down a lap not once but twice earlier in the afternoon.
“Solid recovery for what the start of the race looked like,’’ Logano said, joking that at one point he would have been happy just to finish on the lead lap.
“Stayed out at the end when everyone pitted, which put us on the front row and had a shot to win the race,’’ he continued. “I tried to hold off Larson as long as I could. But overall there’s some days when you’re mad about second (place). Today’s not one of those.’’
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin finished third and fourth – the first top-five finishes for both drivers this season. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe finished fifth just in front of his teammate Aric Almirola.
The SHR team was especially strong Sunday with three of its four drivers combining to lead 264 of the 400 laps. Ryan Preece, who started from the pole position for the first time in his career, collected his first stage win and led a race best 135 laps, but was penalized for speeding on pit road and had to go to the rear of the field. He recovered to finish 15th. Briscoe led 109 laps and Kevin Harvick, who claimed his first stage win since 2020, was out front for 20 laps, but a late race issue left him 20th.
Logano’s Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney was seventh, followed by this year’s DAYTONA 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace – who also had to recover from a pit road speeding penalty.
Perhaps the most noteworthy Top-10 finish of the day belonged to Hendrick Motorsports’ driver Chase Elliott who was making his first start since suffering a broken leg in a snowboarding accident seven weeks ago.
“It was pretty good, honestly — about what I expected, so that was a good thing,’’ Elliott said of his leg after the long day. “Just it was warm (temperatures) and I’ve been sitting on the couch for six weeks so that probably hurt me more than anything.
“We struggled every run but the last one and finally got it going there at the end and I was able to start making some passes and do things I didn’t really think I was going to be capable of doing. So, I was pleasantly surprised by that and got a top 10 of our first day back so that was definitely nothing to be too bummed out about.’’
Elliott acknowledged the earnest and warm welcome he received at the race track all weekend – the first time he’s been to a track since his injury six weeks ago.
“The people, honestly, from my peers to my teammates just the competitive nature of being here and wanting to be better,’’ Elliott said of what he missed most being away from the track during his recovery.
“Really nice to be back and I appreciate the warm welcome this weekend by everybody. I appreciate that and it didn’t go unnoticed.”
With the win, Larson moves to fourth in the championship standings – only 17 points behind leader Christopher Bell, who finished 16th on Sunday. Trackhouse Racing driver Ross Chastain is second, five points behind Bell. He finished 13th at Martinsville.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday in the GEICO 500 at the renowned Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Ross Chastain in the defending race winner.