NASCAR Cup Series
Kyle Larson Plays Playoff Spoiler; Wins at Homestead
Oct 23, 2022
For the second year in a row, Kyle Larson and Cliff Daniels are going to Phoenix at the end of the season with a chance to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Kind of, but actually, really.
Under a very unique set of circumstances, the reigning Cup Series champions have already been eliminated from the driver’s standings but are still eligible for the owner’s points and this matters more than you might realize.
While typically a moot point because the driver and owner playoffs tend to be analogous, the car owner standings actually determine how a vast majority of the end of season purse fund is distributed throughout the field each season.
So, while Larson would have loved to have an opportunity to race for the Bill France Cup for a second consecutive season, he will be just as committed to chasing the biggest payout of the season, because that’s exactly what two weeks from now is about.
"Oh yeah, duh," said Larson, the very definition of a big money racer if there ever was one.
"Yeah, we're in," echoed his crew chief, Daniels.
Larson said he would rather be in this position, having a chance to win the biggest prize money in the sport as a team, than say Ryan Blaney -- who has a chance to win the driver’s championship but can only finish as high as 17th in the owner points.
The No. 12 team failed to make the owner playoffs but Blaney advanced to the Round of 16 when Kurt Busch was unable to participate due to his concussion.
"Say we were to win Phoenix," Larson said. "Like my name isn't going to be on the championship, but having our team be the champion, I think, is honestly better than that ...
"I would hate to be in (Blaney's) position, and say he wins the championship and he is credited with a championship but not his team. If I was to have it one way or the other, I would rather be out on my end and be able to celebrate the team championship."
Part of that is the chemistry he has with Daniels and their crew, but also the money. It's a lot of freaking money.
"I'm happy that we get to go compete for that again," Larson said. "And honestly, that's the paycheck too. We're going to go for that, and we're fired up about it."
Despite some of the challenges this summer and early autumn, the No. 5 team on Sunday very much looked like the one that won 10 races last season. Larson led 199 of the 267 laps -- arguably losing 50 of them due to an ill-timed caution in the middle of green flag pit stops.
It forced him to restart third and needed to methodically work his way through the top-five before taking the lead for good on the final restart with 22 laps remaining. Larson called it for exactly what it was when he climbed out of the car and acknowledged the fans.
"Hope you fans enjoyed the ass-kicking there!"
It was a vintage Larson and Daniels performance, down to the inspirational speech from the crew chief to the team, following a frustrating month when the driver was eliminated from the playoffs and then what happened last weekend with Bubba Wallace.
Daniels describe the speech as colorful.
"If you look at the 5 car throughout the course of the season, we've had great cars," Daniels said. "So on performance, we have not been down. 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.
"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 -- as a team and really it start with me, we haven't done a great job of grasping.
"My words today were 'focus and discipline,' because it takes a lot of focus and a lot of discipline to run the fence for all the laps like 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."
Daniels is a leader that makes his guys want to run through walls for him, to reach the peak of the sport in their first season working together and now for a chance to win the biggest prize in the sport for the second year in a row, even if it doesn't come with the same glitz and glamour.
It all looks the same when the check clears that next morning, figuratively.
"It means a lot," Daniels said. "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 today, 'if you do your jobs, at your 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 just do our jobs today."
Daniels said he wasn't sure if it really landed that the No. 5 team has a chance to race for the same financial prize as last season, but he suspects that will be a lot for the organization too.
"It means a lot to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports who have been giving us fast race cars all year long," Daniels said. "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.
"Listen, (getting eliminated at the Roval) was disappointing but to reflect upon the team that we're still in it, that's another chapter of a character-building year.
"We've had to be tough through the adversity and learn from our mistakes to still be in it so to have this much to race for is still very special."
Hendrick Motorsports is currently sitting on 14 Cup Series championships.
You best believe, that if Elliott or Byron are unable to win the drivers championship, but Larson closes out on the owner’s, they’ll celebrate No. 15 at the shop in Concord, North Carolina. Maybe they’ll be able to celebrate two in the desert in two weeks.
"He's got four great drivers, four great teams that he can be confident in that can go chase to win a championship," Larson said. "I'm happy that we are locked in to try and bring him his 15th. It means a lot, too.
"He's got such a successful history in this sport, and when you think of team owners and teams, Hendrick Motorsports is the bar. They are the best team. It's an honor to race for him and everything that they have built.
"I hope that I can do my part to bring him his 15th."
It's business as usual in the No. 5 shop despite a season that's been anything but.