It would be hard to imagine that anyone doubted the NASCAR Playoffs chances of Kyle Larson going into the 2023 season. However, a massive points penalty doled out to all four Hendrick Motorsports teams for an issue related to the hood louvers on the their Chevrolets, a suspension of crew chief Cliff Daniels, and consecutive runs that featured mishaps at least allowed some uncertainty to creep in.
Following finishes of 18th and 29th in the Daytona 500 and at Fontana, California to kick off the season, Larson and the No. 5 team turned things around with results of 2nd and 4th respectively at Las Vegas and Phoenix. A pole starting position in Phoenix and significant numbers of laps led in each of those races gave the appearance that everything had returned to normal for the Elk Grove, California native and his crew.
However, that seeming normalcy slipped away when, in Atlanta, Larson was caught up in a crash that resulted in a 31st place finish. That run was followed up by a mishap-plagued day at the Circuit of the Americas in which the 30-year-old driver and his team eventually salvaged a 14th place ending.
The most troublesome issue for this and all the HMS teams, however, came during a pre-qualifying inspection at Phoenix Raceway when NASCAR discovered that the hood louvers provided by a single-source supplier had been modified. Each team was handed a 100-point penalty along with the reduction of 10 Playoff points as well as crew chief suspensions.
Those setbacks buried the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion deep in the standings and almost made it seem as if he would need multiple regular season victories just to make sure of his entry into the Playoffs should there again be more than 16 winners during the regular season, And, some magic during those Playoffs could be needed to assure advancement due to the Playoff points loss.
But all of that gloom and doom gave way to a brighter outlook in the week leading up to then during the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. As the result of an appeal, each HMS team was given their 100 points back along with the Playoff points that had been taken away. Then on Sunday, Larson’s season was given the ultimate boost when he earned his first Cup series win of the year.
That victory came in spite of even more adversity for Larson during the race itself. When leaving its pit stall, the No. 5 collided with the incoming car of Daniel Suarez. The resulting damage to the right front fender significantly impacted the handling of the HMS Chevrolet causing Larson to fade back into the field.
Ultimately, that damage was repaired, and with the help of good pit stops, Larson drove back to the front. After a late race restart, he set sail and drove away from the pack score the win.
Even with all that had gone against him and his team, Larson’s mindset was never altered.
“It doesn’t really change my outlook for the rest of the season,” he declared during his post-race press conference. “I felt like, yes, we got hit with 100 points and all that but I felt like our race cars were really fast all year long so I knew we would have many opportunities to win. So yeah, we were able to do that today and I know we’re going to have many more opportunities to win. Nothing has changed in my confidence. We’ve just got to keep executing.”
There were an ever-mounting number of reasons for Kyle Larson and his Hendrick Motorsports team to hang their heads just one week ago. The win on Sunday delivered a strong message. Even with plenty of adversity, this driver and team are not to be counted out. In Richmond, they made a statement.
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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