CONCORD, NC — Never underestimate the power of an inspirational halftime speech.
An array of early problems in the kitchen sink had turned Kyle Larson’s attempt to repeat himself as the Coca-Cola 600 champion into his own hellish escape room during Sunday’s marathon at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I think it was the worst race of my life and we’re not even halfway there,” Larson told his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team via in-car comms as the race headed towards its midpoint. .
Team leader Cliff Daniels sensed his driver was losing morale and he set a time limit on how long he would allow it.
“I mean, it was good that he warned me about the upcoming speech. And I had another 30 laps to sulk,” Larson said after the race. “So that helped.”
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Somehow the No. 5 team recovered to lead significant parts of the fourth and final leg of the annual 600 mile, staying ahead until Larson’s battle with a Chase Briscoe in charge forced an extended cautious period that threw the race into overtime disarray. Larson was turned sideways on the first overtime attempt but still straightened the car for a ninth-place finish.
That the team was even in this mix in contention in the first place was a small miracle. The list of first semester problems stretched as long as a pharmacy receipt. Larson started at the back after a wall scrape in practice on Saturday and was continually dealt cards that made it an all-too-familiar basement.
A wall hit on lap 53. A Stage 2 spin into the front turf. A fender on fire as he circled the track after a wayward stop. What about the championship-caliber pit crew that helped deliver Larson’s first title with a blistering four-tire stop in last fall’s finale? Suddenly, that same group over the wall were catching three penalties in the first half – two for interfering with equipment and one for removing equipment. A close call with Aric Almirola’s #10 Ford dropped a tire, making another excruciatingly long stop.
So when the 200 lap of a planned 400 clicked, Daniels followed suit.
“In the first half, all I want you to remember is how good TV we did,” Daniels said 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.
—NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 30, 2022
It turned out to be the reset Larson and the team needed. Perhaps emboldened by Daniels’ rallying cry, the team’s second half in the longest run of the season went virtually error-free.
“I think we’ve all seen it in Next Gen races, everyone inevitably makes mistakes, right? And you talk about good teams, good drivers, good crews… things just happen,” Daniels said after the race, after a long decompression session inside the No. 5 carrier. “Guys go back to front, front to back and sometimes multiple times. There are tire issues, there are all these things. So 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. I know him, don’t I? If we put him in front, he’s going to be great, because he still is. You know, 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. Yeah, we’re three hours into it. It feels like we’ve run 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 this, and go do what we’re able to do and be really good at. So that was kind of my mindset internally. Yeah, I was pissed and frustrated and angry and sad and all over the place like everyone else was, but there’s really no point…. So you just gotta be tough. You gotta be there at the end. We’re talking about it every week. “
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Larson led just one yellow flag lap in the first half of the race, finishing well short of silver at the end of the first two stages. After the reset, Larson moved on, moving up to third at the end of Stage 3 and then leading 50 laps into the final stage before overtime chaos ensued.
“I think it has a lot to do with Cliff,” Larson said, noting the impact of the mid-race pep talk. “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.
That same pit crew that had air hose issues and spilled tires all over the 600’s first half had their own reset. In nearly every stoppage the No. 5 team went the rest of the way, the pit crew held serve or made clear advantages, including a five-position winner midway through the finals.
When the frontrunners fought for fresh rubber for overtime, Larson’s crew again delivered on their side, giving them a narrow advantage over challenger Ross Chastain’s No. 1 Chevy at the pit exit line. It marked the final test of their pit stop performance, but also of their resolve after such a difficult race at the start.
“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 courage 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 around 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. The road crew literally spent the last day and a half rebuilding our car. Yes, there was a lot of damage after contact with the wall in practice. So, rebuilding a car, making it all happen today, and even having a chance is proof of that.
“I know our pit team might have been beaten a bit, you know, publicly in the first two stops, but it’s a tough group. And for me, that really shows that it’s in the middle of the struggles we had to start the day, the last three pit stops of the race, we got into the top three and started either tied or plus one They did some fantastic things, and that’s like that they’re hard, right? Like, hey, we made mistakes, we messed up, things happened, we got knocked down and we flipped and all those things and we came back and executed great saves like they did fantastically. In your opinion, the backbone of the team is strong. It’s not just any individual. It’s all the guys. And you know, of course, Larson is a badass, once you put him back in front and he talks about things in his mind, and kind of resets himself, he’s awesome. So we have a lot of strength. It’s a shame we didn’t get a better finish, but plenty of great takeaways from the night.