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Larson’s playoff win erases a season with “zero momentum”

Twice during the 2023 NASCAR Cup regular season, Larson made trips to Victory Lane and twice he followed those wins by crashing out of the next race.

Still, he easily advanced to the 16-driver playoffs with solid credentials but with a lingering question mark: Could he and his team string together enough consistent runs that would allow them to contend for a series championship?

Winning means almost everything in NASCAR competition and that’s especially the case in the playoffs. A victory in any one of three races which make up each round of the playoffs means the driver automatically advances to the next.

In other words, with Larson’s win in the playoff opener Sunday night at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, he could finish dead last at Kansas and Bristol, and he will make the Round of 12.

Consistent finishes help drivers advance; wins, however, guarantee it.

“It’s hilarious, if you plot the finishing – just the No. 5 car finishes from all the races this year, it’s a perfect heartbeat,” said Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels. “We had zero momentum all throughout the year.

“At any point we would win, finish 30th, run second, finish 30th, wreck from the lead, finish 30th. It was just like that all year long.”

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro

Photo by: Ben Earp / NKP / Motorsport Images

Larson and his team knew they would make the playoffs after his first win this season at Richmond, but the haphazard results left their potential hard to read.

“From a team-building perspective, we had to really focus on ourselves and learning the lessons in the moment that we needed to learn from some adversity that we created or just overcoming some of the challenges that were thrown our way,” Daniels said.

“We’ve been knocked around a bit this season, but we’re battle tested, and we’re going to keep marching forward.”

The path ahead is a much smoother one, at least for the next two weeks.

Hunting another championship

For Larson, who won his inaugural series title in 2021 and missed out on advancing to the Championship 4 last season, Sunday’s performance and win was especially gratifying.

Outside of one four-race stretch early in the summer, Larson had only two other times with consecutive top-10 finishes.

“Just to start the playoffs off good, I would have been happy just to get a good solid race in, so to win, it feels obviously better, and I hope that we can just put multiple weeks together like it,” he said.

“We don’t necessarily have to win; I know we’ll be capable of winning every race in the playoffs. But really, I just want to put together solid races from start to finish, get stage points, and then get some good finishes at the end of it.

“We were able to do that (at Darlington), and it’s been a long time since we put a full race together.”

Race winner Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro

Race winner Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro

Photo by: David Rosenblum / NKP / Motorsport Images

Daniels credits the No. 5 team’s strong weekend to a lot of self-reflection by everyone involved.

“I certainly made a few mistakes calling races this year; Kyle’s made mistakes behind the wheel; our pit crew has made mistakes on pit road, on and on and on,” he said. “We’ve had to find the right ownership in that of how to hold each other accountable and still build and learn from that.

“Now, going into the playoffs, there’s still so many different things that can happen, especially with the Next Gen car, so many different variables, the way these races play out than what it was a few years ago.

“Our mission is to take all the lessons that we learned from the good and the bad, and every week we’ve just got to put our best foot forward.”

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