The beginning of the 2021 NASCAR season represented validation for Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports and the idea that Larson was in dire need of a more competitive team.
Even before the incident that prompted his indefinite suspension and eventual firing from Chip Ganassi Racing, the few remaining skeptics questioned the amount of energy given to Larson, who had been deemed the most sought-after free agent in all of NASCAR prior to 2020.
Their argument was that the hype was too much; after all, he’d won just six times in 223 starts. In the eyes of those who judged drivers by observable superficial stats or comparisons to older, more experienced stable mates, the logic was sound; to some, including Kyle Busch, it never made sense that he secured a Cup Series ride before winning an Xfinity Series race.
But Larson was and still is a deep-cut analytics darling. Though winless for Turner Scott Motorsports, he led Xfinity Series regulars in pass efficiency in 2013, his rookie season. It was a trait that immediately translated to the Cup Series in 2014, when he ranked third (trailing only Jeff Gordon and fellow statistical standout AJ Allmendinger) in the same category, the youngest driver to rank third or better since advanced passing stats were initially measured by Motorsports Analytics in 2011.
Through his six full seasons driving for CGR, his star shined bright on the spreadsheets despite a lack of outward, team-dependent performance:
CGR’s organizational speed turned a corner in 2017 — Larson’s best year to date, in which he earned four victories, including his first short track win at Richmond — but proved a dubious, albeit unsurprising sign. In the 19 years since Chip Ganassi purchased into Felix Sabates’ preexisting operation, CGR teams have failed to build on any success. Its banner multi-win seasons in 2002, 2010 and 2017 were followed with winless efforts in 2003, 2011 and 2018.
Prior to Larson’s dismissal last year, his performance through the first four races highlighted the organization’s persistent failings. He’d carried the 15th-fastest car to high percentile marks in track position procurement — namely from restarts and long-run passing — heavy lifting all his own:
Crew chief Chad Johnston, most responsible for green-flag pit cycle (GFPC) offense and defense turned in abysmal early numbers, retaining Larson’s running position a mere 25% of the time (for a net loss of 41 positions) in those scenarios. CGR parted ways with Johnston after his numbers failed to improve to a tenable point for Matt Kenseth, Larson’s replacement, but the damage had been done.
Just as Johnston won once in 89 races overseeing Martin Truex Jr.’s team at Michael Waltrip Racing, he also failed to maximize results for Larson, another driver hindsight suggests should’ve fared far better.
Making that hindsight abundantly clear for Larson is the notion of having the fastest car in the series at his disposal, based on average median lap rank.
Consider the timing fortuitous, a result of the development of Hendrick Motorsports’ current cars dating back to 2019, a low point by the admission of Hendrick GM Jeff Andrews, who pointed to poor early-season performances that year as a catalyst for change.
“We weren’t happy with the way we ran at all, for example, at Las Vegas and Fontana,” Andrews told Motorsports Analytics last year. “At that point, we were still developing, I don’t want to say a ‘new car’ — we were certainly a year into it — but any time that you have a body change in a significant aero platform change with these race cars, it takes you a while.”
Key in Hendrick’s rise back to prominence was Cliff Daniels, who became Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief in August 2019. When he inherited the team from predecessor Kevin Meendering, the car ranked as the 17th fastest in the series. Before the end of the year, it placed 13th in the same ranking and fourth during the final quarters of playoff races, making Johnson’s desire for wins and a playoff spot in his final season more than wishful thinking.
Johnson pointed to Daniels’ streamlined communication efforts as the chief reason for his season’s upturn — “Communication being better (allowed) us to get to changes quicker” — but the young crew chief recognized that improved communication was needed to reestablish the foundations of what was once a championship-winning team to succeed far past Johnson’s time behind the wheel. He made it a point to understand Larson’s communicative comforts well before the driver was even fitted for a seat in a Hendrick car.
Additionally, the expediency in which Larson’s personal preferences are applied to his car is faster than Hendrick’s previous norm. Fellow Hendrick driver Chase Elliott recently noted the promotion of Chad Knaus, now the organization’s VP of Competition, has resulted in cars being delivered in a more race-ready fashion, leaving plenty of time for attention to detail.
“When a crew chief sees his car for the first time, about a week before the race, that crew chief has less work to do,” Elliott said last week. “I think Chad has had a big impact in having that car show up in a manner that that particular crew chief wants it to be in.”
Each incremental step taken by Hendrick in advance of Larson’s first start last month in Daytona has led to what we witnessed through the first six races of 2021:
He ranks as the series’ most efficient and prolific passer on non-drafting ovals, having secured a pass differential 58 positions better than his statistical expectation. He ranks first among those with double-digit attempts in preferred groove restart retention, having successfully defended his position on 86.7% of restarts from inside the top 14.
The difference between this year and previous years is that the statistically proficient Larson, a reliable track position creator for the majority of his career, has a dominant car underneath him. He scored a win in Las Vegas, produced a relentless runner-up showing — and possible statement of intent — in Atlanta and even recorded the fastest median lap time in the Daytona 500, a style of race Larson’s never won.
Larson and Hendrick was an intriguing combination from the onset. So far, it’s proving the spreadsheet signs of superstardom true while validating every step the organization took to prepare for a driver like him.