The 2021 NASCAR season was one like no other, seeing Kyle Larson turn in one of the most dominant season-long performances in history in the run-up to his first career Cup Series championship. Did the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports driver have the best single-race showing of the year, though?
With 10 wins on the season and 2,581 laps led out in front of the field, chances are the sport’s best driver takes home the honors, but we’ll see. NASCAR.com’s Pat DeCola and Terrin Waack debate.
DeCOLA: Alright, I’m going to break the rules a little bit here. Larson was, obviously, unstoppable in 2021 so it’d be hard to pick any other driver, though I did take a long look at Martin Truex Jr. flexing on the field with 248 laps led and a 2.571 margin of victory at Darlington in the spring.
So while I am, indeed, going with a race that Larson won — and won handily, at that — the 2021 Coca-Cola 600 was a flat-out butt-whooping by Hendrick Motorsports as a whole, placing all four drivers in the top five. No. 5 picked up the trophy after 327 of 400 laps led, but all four drivers led at least five laps as the quartet combined for 373 circuits out in front of the field.
This was an important one to win, if you’ll recall, as the race victory was the record-breaking 269th for Hendrick Motorsports. With the team’s shop just a stone’s throw from Charlotte Motor Speedway, Mr. H made sure he brought four cars capable of winning to the track so the opportunity to claim the record in his backyard would not pass by unused.
“It feels great to be that guy who helped Mr. H break that record finally,” Larson said of the victory that broke a tie with Petty Enterprises for most wins in the series.
The win came in the middle of the organization’s first big streak of dominance of the year — the last one came in the season’s final five races, with Larson winning four and Bowman picking up Martinsville — with Bowman kicking things off with a win at Dover followed by five more in a row from the championship organization.
That win, to me, stands as the best example of what that team was capable of across the board in 2021, in a stretch that truly showed Hendrick was on another playing field than the other teams this year. It was nothing short of impressive.
WAACK: The first domino was the most important: Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 7. Kyle Larson led a race-high 103 laps in the 267-lap event, including the last 30 circuits to take the checkered flag. The victory marked the seventh in Larson’s career and his first with Hendrick Motorsports.
It’s the latter tally that weighs heavier. Hendrick Motorsports brought Larson back into the sport after he was suspended by NASCAR and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing for using a racial slur during an iRacing live stream last year. Larson was officially reinstated by the sanctioning body effective Jan. 1.
In the opening three races of this past season, Larson finished 10th, 30th and fourth. Then Las Vegas came around: first.
Technically, the Las Vegas win also punched Larson’s ticket into the NASCAR Playoffs. Without it, there would have been no shot at the championship, which he obviously won. Yeah, yeah: Another win surely would have come along considering nine more did, but who knows. Technically, Las Vegas did the trick.
Also, think about what the win meant confidence-wise for Larson. It was his first trip back to Victory Lane since 2019. It was just his fourth race back in 2021 since only running only four in 2020.
“Thank you so much, Mr. H, Jeff Gordon (and) everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for the amazing opportunity I’ve been gifted,” Larson said immediately after exiting the car. “… This is definitely, definitely special.”