RICHMOND, Va. — Kyle Larson showed the strength of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet over the closing miles and won Sunday’s 400-lap NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway.
The win was the first of the season for the former Cup champion, and it came in a race that saw a variety of tire strategies.
Larson rallied from a Lap-160 incident on pit road, where he bumped Daniel Suarez and sustained minor damage to his Chevrolet.
MORE: Richmond Cup results, driver points
“Typically, when you leave from a green flag stop, it feels different because there’s rubber on the track and all that,” Larson said. “So I took off … and I was, like, OK, my car is driving different than it did to start this run. I didn’t think that I hit Suarez that hard. It didn’t feel that hard from my seat. So I am, like, OK, it’s whatever. I was, like, man, I’m not good.
“I was really tight loading into the corner. Snapped loose off. Lapped cars were driving by me. I was just, like, man, is this the track change or — and then they told me the damage. And, yeah, there was just nothing I could do to manage what I was fighting. … I was really, really bad, really lacking traction that run. I was just shocked that the damage did that much to me. But thankfully it was in an area where they could pop it back out, and our car drove fine after that.”
The win was more emotional than most for the Hendrick team. It came on the anniversary of the birthday of Ricky Hendrick, son of team owner Rick Hendrick. Ricky died in a 2004 plane crash that killed several members of the team. Larson’s No. 5 car carried a paint scheme similar to the one used by Ricky Hendrick when he raced.
The victory was a grand conclusion to a positive week for Hendrick Motorsports, which regained points it had been penalized by NASCAR when an appeals panel adjusted the penalties.
Second on Sunday was Josh Berry, Larson’s Hendrick teammate and the fill-in driver for injured Chase Elliott, still recovering from a leg injury suffered in a snowboarding accident. Following in the top five were Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell and Kevin Harvick.
The victory was the first for interim crew chief Kevin Meendering.
The race to the finish was set up by a caution flag with 30 laps to go, bunching the field with teams rolling along on different tire strategies. Larson won the race off pit road and led Berry, Martin Truex Jr. and William Byron to the green.
Truex had held the lead but lost a shot at the win because of the caution. When he and the other leaders pitted, Truex had only a set of used tires for the final laps, putting him at a significant disadvantage. Lap speeds fell off dramatically Sunday during long tire runs, making fresh rubber a game-changer.
The green was barely in the air when Bell popped Byron in the front pack, sending him into a spin and causing another caution.
Truex took the lead after a round of green-flag pit stops around lap 290. Denny Hamlin had the lead when the sequence began, but a slow stop by his team allowed Truex, who had been second, to inherit the lead.
Hamlin took the lead from Bell with two laps to go in the second stage and led Bell, Byron, Truex and Chastain to the stage finish. Through two stages, Byron had led 108 laps and Larson 67.
Berry produced the day’s fourth caution when he spun out near the start-finish line on lap 96. Berry lost a lap.
Byron dominated the first stage, leading 45 of the 70 laps.
The first on-track caution occurred on lap 46 when Hamlin bumped J.J. Yeley into a slide.
Stage 1 winner: William Byron
Stage 2 winner: Denny Hamlin
Who had a good race: Martin Truex Jr. enjoyed his best run of the season but fell victim to a late-race caution flag. … William Byron, the season’s only multiple winner with two, won the first stage and was strong at or near the front virtually the entire afternoon. … Josh Berry finished second as a sub for Chase Elliott, scoring a top-two run in his sixth Cup start.
Who had a bad race: Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was forced to the pits early with a fluid leak and brake issues. He fell to the rear of the field after repairs. … Noah Gragson slammed the wall in Turn 2 with 95 laps to go and parked for the afternoon.
Next: The Cup Series moves on to Bristol Motor Speedway April 9 (7 p.m. ET) for its annual dirt race.