AVONDALE, Ariz. — His coronation as NASCAR Cup Series champion was just hours old, but Kyle Larson was already being asked in post-race media sessions to reflect on his lasting memory from Sunday’s clinching victory, the thing he’ll remember most once he reaches his golden years. His answer was an aspect of the race that he may have been the least involved with.
In the final foreseeable race for the five-on, five-off lug nut choreography of pit stops, Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet’s over-the-wall crew provided Larson with a signature, season-saving moment from the march to his first Cup Series title. Speedy pit service moved Larson from fourth place to first on the final round of stops, providing him a crucial advantage for the last green-flag run of the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
“It all came down to the final pit stop,” said No. 5 crew chief Cliff Daniels. “And I have always pushed our guys so hard back at the shop, the guys working on the car, the guys pitting the car, and to see them shine in a moment where they could shine I think is just incredible.”
Larson’s indisputable talent deserves a fair share of the credit in his championship run, and so does the near-bulletproof equipment that team owner Rick Hendrick provided him. But the No. 5 pit crew has its own memory to cherish, converting a clutch 12.345-second final stop that ranked as the Hendrick organization’s fastest all season, according to the Racing Insights statistical service.
Once Larson’s No. 5 car rolled out of the first pit stall at pit exit, the crew celebrated the momentum shift. Front-tire changer Donnie Tasser, tire carrier RJ Barnette, rear-tire changer Calvin Teague, jackman Brandon Johnson and fueler Brandon Harder had all done their jobs. That put Larson in position to do the rest in the 24 green-flag laps to the end.
“It’s the competitor in you, taking the last shot,” said Chris Burkey, Hendrick Motorsports pit crew coach. “… It’s really amazing because with pit stops, the only time people really know about pit stops is when something goes bad. Tonight it worked for them. We were up and down during the middle part of the race, but other than that, we bounced back and made it happen at the very last stop. It was awesome to watch.”
The Hendrick No. 5 crew has been a reliable presence all year in Larson’s first season with the team. But the stop that predated the final trip to pit road was not as successful; Larson lost a position in that exchange, allowing Joey Logano to briefly slip by into third place.
That kept Larson third among the four title-eligible drivers, dimming his title hopes as the clock ticked down on the season. A caution for debris in the form of a broken brake rotor just 28 laps later gave the No. 5 crew a quick chance at redemption.
“At that point, when you’re running fourth, you want a pit stop. So our wish was granted,” said Barnette, a tire carrier who has been with Hendrick Motorsports for 10 years. He worked his way back onto the team this year, completing his recovery from a pectoral muscle injury in 2018. “We got to come down, and the guys busted off one of the best stops we’ve had all year. I mean, that’s what we’ve done. When the pressure’s on, we’ve always stepped up, and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. It’s an amazing year.”
Teague seconded that the No. 5 Chevy’s next-to-last stop was “not up to our standards.” Burkey, ever the observant coach, said he could see the team’s desire to make amends for its earlier miscue as they awaited the car’s arrival to the first pit stall.
“Since we didn’t have the greatest pit stop the one before, you never want to end on a bad one, right?” said Teague, the rear-tire changer who celebrated his fourth championship in his 13 years with Hendrick Motorsports. “So we went out there and did what we know we can do. We’ve done it all year, and we’ve proved it to ourselves. We don’t have to prove anything to anybody. Our job is to just go out there and do the best we can each and every week, and I think we’ve done that. …
“No matter if our name’s on the car or anywhere, this team, the guys that we have on this team, it’s not about any one specific person. We are a team for a reason, and the team that we have and assembled is one of the greatest I’ve ever been a part of and it shows. If somebody has a mistake, they come and they pick you up, right? Nobody hangs their heads. We just go and do what we know we can do, and everybody has faith in everybody.”
While Larson’s title-winning car is emblazoned with No. 5, the team’s makeup has the lineage of the No. 48 team that Jimmie Johnson carried to legendary status. When the No. 48 transferred to the former No. 88 team and driver Alex Bowman before the season, the car that Larson would drive to 10 victories this year was rebranded with No. 5, Hendrick Motorsports’ original car number.
No matter the number, the team has remained a cohesive group, one that soaked in the champagne from a championship stage as the sun set on the 2021 season.
“It’s a great team to be a part of,” said Tasser, the front-tire changer in his third year with the team. “Everyone plays their role and plays it well. All season it’s been that way. We have great cars, we’ve had great stall selections, Kyle’s an amazing driver, and we’ve had a pretty good year, I’d say. Just a special thing to be a part of.
“This is mostly the same team as last year, teams of 48 past. There was a while there when you thought that we were never going to get to feel this again. This is amazing.”