It was only a matter of time before Kyle Larson returned to Victory Lane.
With Hendrick Motorsports equipment and Jimmie Johnson’s former team, Larson finally found an opportunity in NASCAR where his talent could shine.
At Las Vegas, stock car fans got a glimpse of the driver’s immense talent—and Larson is just getting started.
“It feels good,” Larson said. “I guess I didn't know if I'd ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again. To get this awesome opportunity with Hendrick Motorsports and Mr. H taking a massive chance on me, then going out there and being strong all year, it's been great.”
“I knew we were close to getting a win. Our pit crew done a really good job all season long. Cliff and everybody has been bringing really fast racecars to the track. For the most part I've been doing my job, too, on the racetrack. I knew if we could continue to do that, we would get a win. Today we put it all together, had a dominating race car to go along with it. Made my job behind the wheel a lot easier.
“Cool to get a win this early in the year, now focus ahead and try to win a lot more, rack up Playoff points, put ourselves in a good spot once the Playoffs start.”
Larson escaped the Daytona 500 with a top 10 finish. He was battling for second-place in the closing laps at the Daytona Road Course, hit the tire wall and was forced to pit. He finished 30th. At Homestead-Miami Speedway—traditionally one of Larson’s best venues on the tour, he finished fourth. Entering Las Vegas, the No. 5 team had tremendous momentum.
With the exception of an unavoidable miscue when Larson was blocked by a lapped car coming to pit road, he never wavered.
“Even before I ran a race, I had the confidence that I could win,” Larson said. “I mean, obviously Chase Elliott won the championship last year. They were hitting as an organization, doing a great job at the right part of the year. With the rules not changing and stuff, I knew we were going to be competitive.
“I didn't know kind of what the learning curve would be going into the new race team, being around new people, all of that. But with the resources that they have and all the great people that they have in that building, that in itself gives you a lot of confidence. I definitely have gotten more confident as each week has gone on. I think now winning a race just adds to that. In a way, I guess it calms you down because it gives you -- you know you can go out there and win and contend at a lot of different types of racetracks.”
For crew chief Cliff Daniels, who was saddled with Jimmie Johnson’s retirement run—and then the challenges of the pandemic last year—inheriting a young driver with the most potential Hendrick Motorsports has seen since Jeff Gordon joined the organization in 1992, is a blessing.
“It's been quite a journey for this team, even for Kyle, for us all to be here at this point together,” Daniels said. “I am so grateful to Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus for believing in me, to give me an opportunity at crew chief when they did. Of course, to Mr. H (Hendrick), Jeff Gordon, everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff Andrews, Marshall (Carlson). Now here, we knew we had a fast car. Kyle coming onboard has just been a nice spark for this team because it was tough to see Jimmie retire. We wanted to win with him so bad, and we had some great runs last year that just never materialized for one reason or another.
“So, yeah, I mean, it was tough on our team to learn those lessons and fight those battles and to have Jimmie go retire. A lot of us had won not just one race but a lot of races or even championships with Jimmie. To end without getting a win, to see him kind of move on was so bittersweet. Quickly we were able to turn the page. Just so encouraging having Kyle come in. We knew from the year he had last year and everything that he went through last year, the way he positioned himself really well to go win a lot of races, just with the talent that he shows every week, we were hopeful. I would say a small amount of confidence that when he got in our cars that we would be right up front.”
Larson has shown over the first four races what he’s capable of accomplishing when he’s driving top-notch equipment and has the backing of a championship team. His win in the No. 5 is the earliest a new Hendrick driver has visited Victory Lane once joining the team.
"Kyle is so talented, to get in a car that he's never been in before, tracks he's seen but not in our stuff, I've just watched him over the years, and I know how talented he is," Hendrick said. "Cliff has a really good team. I didn't really expect for it to come this quick because I just thought it would take more time to gel. But our cars are fast. He's a champion really. I'm so lucky to have him. Cliff is just a great young man. To win in the fourth race, especially when you don't have any practice, you just show up and race, it's really been awesome.
"I think they're going to have a lot of success together this year. If you look back at the road course, he had a shot to win that. If you show up and you run well, that's half the battle. Nobody doubts Kyle's ability."
Despite spending his first six years in Cup with Ganassi Racing, it’s still hard to believe he had just six wins in his first 226 starts. Now, Larson has no excuses.
As for Larson’s sabbatical from NASCAR in 2020, when he was suspended from competition after uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event, that faux pas will fade over time. In racing, winning cures everything.