For Kyle Larson, the Southern 500 was a gem that kept slipping away. 11 career starts, three runner-up finishes and an entire trophy case filled with heartbreak came to the fore entering Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener. The 715 career laps led were the most for him at any NASCAR track he had not yet won.
What a time for Lady Luck to finally give Larson her break in Lady in Black.
The 2021 Cup champion survived a famous Darlington stripe, which caused his Chevrolet’s handling to go awry when it mattered most in the closing stages. As other competitors fell victim to their mistakes, Larson put in what the team felt was their best all-around performance since their dominance during the NASCAR All-Star Race in May.
“We kept our focus in the game,” Larson said. “It was really important. This race is about keeping your mind.”
he is right. The 500-mile long event at Darlington, which takes more than four hours to complete, has effects on both man and machine. It began with a 115-lap, green-flag race leading to the end of Stage 1 and ended with three cautions and four DNFs in the final 100 miles.
Larson knows the feeling of being lost in those last moments. He had led the most laps here just two years earlier and lost in a kamikaze charge against Denny Hamlin.
This year, Hamlin thought the race was in his hands again, but a loose wheel put him out of the competition. The race fell into the hands of Tyler Reddick, then probably Kevin Harvick, while Larson struggled behind him.
“I messed up once and it just hung in neutral,” Larson said. “I slipped and hit the wall, and I think twisted the toe a little bit, so it was kind of a struggle from there.”
That’s where crew chief Cliff Daniels remained a steady hand on the pit box of Larson. Cheerleading without hiding the truth, she kept Larson focused and prevented a snowball effect that could have caused a frustrated driver to crash.
Daniels said, “We all know he has talent.” “When he comes out and executes a good resume and does all the things we know he can do, he’s dynamite.”
The No. 5 team played its part after Larson kept the car in the top five, taking a pit stop to launch to the front following a caution for Ryan Newman’s spin with 57 laps remaining. From there, it was a combination of Larson gaining momentum and Daniels making sure his driver’s mind did not wander.
“The ball is in his court, not yours,” Daniels said of Reddick, who ran to second. “You run the line you want and it has to work for it.”
Larson admitted that those words of encouragement were all she needed in the most pressing moments.
Larson said, “Having a leader like Cliff is really good for my mind.”
The most serious incident of the night occurred between two non-playoff contenders. Alex Bowman committed the cardinal sin of stalling the faster car of Daniel Suarez not once but twice while both cars battled for position. For the second time, both men paid the price with Harrison Burton paying the worst.
Both men blamed each other for being wrong.
“He cuts me off whenever I’m around him,” Bowman claimed“And we needed to hold on to all our track positions.”
“I gave him a break once,” Suarez retorted“I wouldn’t give him a break twice. It’s not fair. He has five minutes to be a dummy and he used it against 99, I think.”
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