CONCORD, NC — Kyle Larson started the race from the back after hitting the wall and damaging his car during practice. He spun. He hit the wall again. Several errors on pit road resulted in the imposition of three different penalties on his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team.
His car even caught fire at one point. Everything that could seemingly go wrong went wrong for the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion who had a race to forget on Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was having a day at the office as bad as he had ever known.
“I think it was the worst race of my life, and we’re not even halfway there,” Larson told his team over the radio as the race started.
More frustration followed after he looped his car into Turn 4.
“I just lost him. I just suck. Me, he’s the driver, I just suck. Nobody but me,” Larson said on the radio.
Sitting atop the pit, Cliff Daniels’ emotions were what one would expect of a team leader watching his team, his championship team, self-destruct in a crown jewel race in which she should fight. He was “pissed off and frustrated and mad and sad and everywhere like everyone else was.
But Daniels also didn’t convey to his team how he felt. He kept it inside, choosing not to lash out. The conclusion he came to was that his team needed a boost. So with about 30 laps remaining in Stage 2, he radioed Larson to prepare him for what was to come during the stage break.
“In my head, I’m like, ‘OK, our car isn’t destroyed. I really don’t think it’s terrible if we put him in front, I’m sure it would be better,” Daniels said. “I know (Larson). If we put him in front, he’s going to be great because he still is. It’s the same pit crew that six months ago won the championship for us. So yes, we had a rough start to the day. But I have all faith and trust in these guys. So it’s like, ‘Okay, wait a minute. Yes, we are at three hours. It feels like I ran a marathon, but we’re barely halfway there, if at all at this point. So like, ‘Hey, let’s relax for a minute. Let’s think about that and go do what we can do and be really good at. So that was kind of my state of mind internally.
The pep talk of all pep talks was given during the stage break that represented the halfway point of NASCAR’s longest race.
“In the first half, all I want you to remember is how good television we did,” Daniels told Larson on the radio. “We went from back to front more times than I can count. We hit the wall, we spun, we literally caught fire. We were also the most penalized team on pit road in the first half. All that means is that in the second half we’re already going to start much better than we started in the first half. We have to go perform right now, so I don’t know why you’re worried, but I’m fine, the team is fine. Everybody down here nods and gives a thumbs up, so let’s go.
It might not quite be on the level of something seen in a Disney movie, but Daniels’ halftime speech resonated with Larson, and the team reversed their run in a fashionable way. spectacular.
“I mean, it was good that he warned me about the upcoming speech. And I had about 30 more rounds to sulk,” Larson said. “So that helped. He’s really good at saying the right things at the right time.
Daniels’ message was well received.
During the second half of the 600 mile race, Larson didn’t skid, the car didn’t catch fire and the pit crew was quick and error free, including a late stop where they made gain five places for its driver.
And wouldn’t you know, as the errors diminished, the #5 car gradually moved up the standings. Before long, Larson was in the top 10, then in the top five, then in the lead. He led 50 of the last 63 laps, giving the impression that he was going to complete a breathtaking rally. As ugly as the first part of the Coca-Cola 600 was, the second half was quite the opposite – even if there was no storybook return that night.
Any chance of victory ended when Larson was swept away in a multi-car crash during an overtime restart. But overall, it doesn’t matter where he ended up in the final running order (ninth). What mattered was that when things were dark, Team #5 found a way out of free fall and saved the night.
Sunday provided another example of the key principle that propelled Larson and Daniels to a historic 10-win season in 2021, culminating in their Cup championship victory. The basis of their success goes beyond an extremely talented driver, a brilliant crew chief and some of the best equipment in the garage, but also encompasses an often overlooked courage.
Regardless of any setbacks that may arise, the team never considers itself out of contention. He has a deep-rooted belief that he can overcome anything.
“We have a very healthy mix of guys who are young and still have the fire of youth, but they are runners, so they know the guts it takes,” Daniels said. “We also have a good mix of guys who are really experienced and have been doing it for a long time, so they don’t get tossed about too easily by scenarios and situations. Believe me, we’d rather do things a lot more polished, but some days you just have to take off your gloves and get to work, and these guys sure know how to do that. I can’t compliment them enough.
Such a mindset is similar to that which characterized Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, winning a NASCAR record five consecutive championships from 2006 to 2010 and a record seven titles overall. Never Knaus thought that an obstacle could not be overcome.
That Knaus’ team and the one Daniels leads are virtual mirrors of each other is no coincidence. Daniels was a member of that team, joining in 2015 and winning a championship with that group the following season. He saw firsthand what became one of NASCAR’s all-time great dynasties and when he became Johnson’s crew chief in 2019, he set about instilling the same fundamentals. And when Larson replaced the retired Johnson on Hendrick’s driver roster last year, he fully bought into the system Daniels had put in place.
“I think it has a lot to do with Cliff,” Larson said. “He’s simply the best leader in the garage business, and I’m glad he’s on our team. So yeah, he did a great job of keeping me in the game, our pit crew in the game and giving us a chance to win.
It’s too early to tell if Larson and Daniel will become NASCAR’s next great driver couple. But the signs are there that they may have similar stamina. Larson is a generational talent while Daniels has a deep understanding of strategy, team building and engineering ingenuity.
But their collective resolve was on full display on Sunday. On a night when they were far from their best, the team still found a way, exactly how championship-caliber teams should behave in the face of adversity.
“There’s so much that could have been one night,” Daniels said. “So to go home with a top 10, yes, we’re going to take it. No, it’s not what we want, but overall it’s not a bad day.
(Top photo: Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)