Kyle Larson‘s NASCAR Cup Series title defense began with a wreck at the Daytona 500.
One week later, he put things back in order.
It wasn’t without some controversy, which his Hendrick Motorsports team was quick to try and diffuse afterwards. But Larson’s win Sunday at Auto Club Speedway was his fifth in the last seven Cup points races dating back to last season.
MORE: Auto Club winners and losers
Included in this stretch are four playoff wins – three in a row (Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway), then his triumph in last November’s Championship race at Phoenix Raceway. Additionally, his 607 laps led and average finish of 7.3 in this stretch are tops among all drivers.
The debut of the new Next Gen car had the potential to derail the No. 5 team’s stellar run.
But while there may be bugaboos that emerge in the weeks ahead, they’ve got a win (and a playoff berth) in their pocket.
“It definitely feels good to get a win early on in the year, because going to a new car, you don’t know if you’re going to win or not,” Larson said.
However, Larson was more enthused about the different names at the front of the field Sunday.
Among them were Tyler Reddick (won both stages, led race-high 90 laps), Erik Jones (finished third, his first top five since Oct. 2020), and Daniel Suarez (finished fourth), who fought Larson for the win in the final laps.
“(Reddick) was dominant today. (Jones) was super impressive. (Suarez) there at the end. Austin Dillon and their team did a good job,” Larson said. “I mean, I look at it as Chevys were really strong today. Chase Briscoe and their team was really good at one point.
“You had some more players or some different players, I guess, than you maybe would have had in the past. That part of it is neat to see. I think that’ll probably change as we go along with the season, but for right now, it’s pretty cool to see.”
Meanwhile, Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, carries the burden of replicating his team’s dominant form of a year ago with the Next Gen car.
From Daniels’ perspective, not only has nothing carried over from last year, but even the concept of how a race progresses has changed weekly.
He and the No. 5 team saw no tire falloff in the exhibition Clash at the Coliseum. Then came Daytona, which he felt raced differently; the ability to move around in the draft was canceled out as the lanes were stuck two-by-two.
Then came Sunday at Auto Club, which Daniels said played out “almost like old-school Darlington.”
“You run 10 or 15 laps, somebody blows a tire, hits the fence, you pit, and you had 12 sets of tires, and I think we used all but one,” Daniels elaborated.
“Our car, for whatever reason, was on a really fine line of a balance adjustment – like, it was a very, very small adjustment away from being comfortable, to being one side or the other of the coin of balance, which is obviously something that we will get to work on as we get more reps with the car, just to get it more comfortable for him and more consistent, that it’s not so broken up run to run.
“Luckily, we did hone in on it at the end.”
Even in the completely different landscape of the Next Gen era, that’s all that matters.
With that, the No. 5 team rolls on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the Next Gen makes its debut on a traditional mile-and-a-half oval.
Larson claimed his first win as a member of Hendrick Motorsports there last spring.