CONCORD, N.C. — Never underestimate the power of an inspirational halftime speech.
A kitchen-sink array of early issues had turned Kyle Larson’s bid to repeat as Coca-Cola 600 champ into his own personal, hellish escape room in Sunday’s marathon at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I think this has been the worst race of my life and we’re not even halfway,” Larson told his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team over the in-car communications as the race lurched toward its midpoint.
Crew chief Cliff Daniels sensed that his driver was losing morale, and he set a time limit on how much longer he’d allow it to go.
“I mean, it was nice that he warned me of the speech coming. And I had another 30-some-odd laps to pout,” Larson said post-race. “So that helped.”
Somehow, some way, the No. 5 team recovered to lead significant portions of the fourth and final stage of the annual 600-miler, staying in front until Larson’s battle with a charging Chase Briscoe forced a race-extended caution period that threw the race into overtime disarray. Larson was turned crossways in the first overtime attempt, but still righted the car for a ninth-place finish.
That the team was even in that contending mix in the first place was a minor miracle. The list of first-half issues stretched as long as a pharmacy receipt. Larson started at the rear after a wall scrape in Saturday’s practice and was continually dealt cards that made it a too-familiar cellar.
A wall tap on Lap 53. A Stage 2 spin into the frontstretch turf. A fender on fire as he loped around the track after a wayward stop. And the championship-caliber pit crew that helped deliver Larson’s first title with a blazing four-tire stop in last fall’s finale? Suddenly, that same over-the-wall group was catching flak for three first-half penalties — two for equipment interference and one for removing equipment. A close call with Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Ford knocked a tire away, making another stop agonizingly long.
So when Lap 200 of a scheduled 400 clicked off, Daniels took his cue.
“In the first half, all I want you to remember is how good TV we made,” Daniels said on the radio. “We went from the back to the front more times than I can count. We hit the wall, we spun out, we literally caught on fire. We were also the most penalized team on pit road in the first half. All that means is that in the second half, already we’re going to be starting way better than what we started the first half. We’ve got to go execute right now, so I don’t know what the hell you’re worried about, but I’m fine, the team’s fine. Everybody down here is nodding their heads and giving a thumbs-up, so let’s go.”
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It turned out to be the reset Larson and the team needed. Perhaps emboldened by Daniels’ rallying cry, the team’s second half in the season’s longest race was virtually error-free.
“I think we’ve all seen at the Next Gen races, everyone inevitably makes mistakes, right? And you’re talking good teams, good drivers, good crews … things just happen,” Daniels said post-race, after a long session to decompress inside the No. 5 hauler. “Guys go from the back to the front, from the front to the back and sometimes multiple times. There’s tire issues, there’s all these things. So in my mind, I’m like, OK, our car isn’t destroyed. I really don’t think it’s terrible if we get it out front, I’m sure it’d be better. I know him, right? If we get him out front, he’s gonna be awesome, because he always is. You know, this is the same pit crew that six months ago won the championship for us. So yes, we had a tough start to the day. But I have all the faith and trust in those guys.
“So it’s like, all right, hang on a minute. Yes, we’re three hours in. It feels like we’ve run a marathon, but we’re barely even halfway, if at all at that point. So like, hey, let’s chill out for a minute. Let’s think about this, and let’s go do what we’re capable of doing and being really good. So that was kind of my frame of mind internally. Yes, I was pissed off and frustrated and mad and sad and all over the place like everybody else was, but that really doesn’t do any good. … So you just gotta be tough. You’ve got to be there at the end. We talk about it every week.”
Larson led just one yellow-flag lap in the first half of the race, finishing nowhere near the money at the end of the first two stages. After the reset, Larson moved forward, easing into third at the conclusion of Stage 3, then leading 50 laps in the closing stage before overtime chaos ensued.
“I think a lot of it has to do with Cliff,” Larson said, noting the impact of the mid-race pep talk. “He’s just the best leader in the garage area, and I’m glad that we have him as part of our team. So yeah, he did a great job keeping me in the game, our pit crew in the game and gave us a shot to win.”
That same pit crew that had air-hose troubles and tires knocked everywhichaway in the 600’s first half had their own reset. In nearly each stop the No. 5 team made the rest of the way, the pit crew held serve or made net plusses, including a five-position gainer midway through the final stage.
When the front-runners pitted for fresh rubber for overtime, Larson’s crew delivered again on their end, giving him a narrow edge over challenger Ross Chastain’s No. 1 Chevy at the pit-exit line. It marked the final test of their pit-stop performance, but also their resolve after such a rocky ride early on.
“We have a very healthy mix of guys that are young and still have the fire of youth, but they are racers so they know the grit that it takes,” Daniels said. “We also have a good mix of guys that are really experienced and been doing it for a long time, so they don’t get rattled too easily by scenarios and situations. Trust me, we would prefer to do things a lot more polished up, but some days you just got to take your gloves off and get to work, and these guys know how to do that. I cannot compliment them enough. The road crew literally spent the last day and a half rebuilding our car. Yes, there was a lot of damage after the wall contacts in practice. So to rebuild a car, to have all this stuff happen today and even have a shot is a testament to them.
“I know, our pit crew may have got beat up a little, you know, publicly on the first couple of stops but they’re a tough bunch. And to me, what really shows that is in the midst of the struggles that we had to start the day, the last three pit stops of the race, we came in in the top three and left either on par or plus one. They did fantastic, and that’s how tough they are, right? Like, hey, we made mistakes, we screwed up, we had things happen, got knocked over and spun around and all these things and come back and execute great stops like they did fantastic. To your point, the backbone of the team is strong. It’s not any individual. It’s all the guys. And you know, of course Larson’s a badass, once you get him back out front and he talks things over in his mind, and he kind of resets himself, he’s great. So we’ve got a lot of strength. It sucks that we didn’t get a better finish, but a lot of good takeaways from the night.”