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March 3, 2024

Convincing Las Vegas victory by Larson, Hendrick rings a bell

LAS VEGAS — The sound that pierced Sunday’s usual Victory Lane patter — the “woos” from the winning crew, the camera shutters and the fan buzz — was a ringing bell. It was persistent, cutting through the confetti that blew all over the Las Vegas Motor Speedway grounds in a gale-force wind. It also seemed early.

Hendrick Motorsports custom holds that a victory bell cart rolls through the organization’s sprawling campus after each NASCAR Cup Series win, with the celebration of a Sunday triumph stretching into midweek commemoration. Now Hendrick’s No. 5 team has a new tradition — a travel-sized version.

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Kyle Larson made it two Las Vegas victories in a row Sunday, mimicking the stage-sweeping triumph he posted here last fall in the Cup Series Playoffs. In leading 181 of the 267 laps, he handed Hendrick Motorsports its second win in three races to start the organization’s 40th-anniversary campaign with some oomph to match the preseason sizzle and serving notice with an early season statement to the rest of the field.

The new victory ritual has its fledgling roots stemming from this year’s preseason kickoff event that brought the No. 5 crew together with the Hendrick Automotive Group. In true, old-school car-dealer fashion, big sales achievements mean ringing the bell to mark the occasion. Leave it to Darryl Jackson, the automotive division’s charismatic vice president of financial services, to lend that tradition to the race team that sponsors.

“Anybody who knows Darryl Jackson, he is the hype man of all hype men,” No. 5 crew chief Cliff Daniels told “He’s hilarious and wide open, and he made us these bells because he wanted us to ring it in Victory Lane any time we won. Hate that he couldn’t be here today. I’m sure he was back in Charlotte, but we already took a video of us ringing the bell, sent it back to Darryl. He’s super happy, super proud. So I honestly think it’s just an evolution of what’s already a lot of fun for a Hendrick tradition.”

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Larson’s performance vaulted him into the early lead in the Cup Series standings, a 10-spot jump aided by Sunday’s maximum-points day. His teammates are right there with him — William Byron fourth and Chase Elliott seventh, with Alex Bowman in 13th — as the only four-car team with all its drivers currently in the way-too-early playoff positioning.

Early on, it seemed Byron — who won this race in similarly dominating fashion last year — might be Larson’s closest competition. He looked every bit the part until his No. 24 Chevy caught a massive piece of debris on the grille that sent his engine’s temperatures skyrocketing into the red. Byron made an unscheduled pit stop to remove a trash bag that would need an entire sanitation crew to fill, rallied from a lap down and then recovered again after he slid through his pit box on a final-stage stop.

“I think I passed the whole field twice,” Byron told his crew on the radio.

“I think three. Let’s make it four,” said No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle, who coaxed his driver to an eventual 10th-place result.

That left Tyler Reddick as Larson’s top challenger, and his dogged pursuit in the closing laps also made a statement. While it wasn’t the three-wide photo finish of the week before at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the closer Reddick’s No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota got to Larson’s bumper, the more the suspense built. But Larson answered every charge Reddick made.

“Today, we did everything great from start to finish — pit crew, pit calls, restarts, the car itself, myself in the seat, blocking the right way and making speed while doing it was good,” Larson said. “If we can carry that on, I think there is definitely potential to have a great season like we did in 2021.”

Larson’s 2021 reference was a nod to his 10-win breakout season that ended in his first Cup Series championship. Measuring potential just three races into a 36-race season is often a dangerous proposition, but so far, the indicators are all pointing toward positives.

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Chevrolet is 3-for-3 to start the Cup Series season, with no let-up in the venerable Camaro ZL1 as rivals Ford and Toyota begin the process of sorting their new bodies for this season. Ford’s signs of strength so far have been in qualifying with its own 3-for-3 mark in winning pole positions. Sunday, Toyota made its own proclamation of in-race speed with Reddick’s runner-up finish but also with admirable showings from the Joe Gibbs Racing camp, with Ty Gibbs, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin all scoring top-10 finishes.

“We’re going to have to keep evolving pretty quick because the more they start to get their stuff figured out, the gap is going to get closed,” Daniels said. “To be honest, I know that win both stages and win the race, you would say we had the dominant day, but there were some cars that were pretty tough right there with us, and at the end of long runs, the 45 was there every time. I think the gap is actually tighter than what it may look on paper.”

On paper, the records show four Hendrick Motorsports victories in the last five Vegas races, at least providing the impression that the road to Victory Lane in Sin City and at other intermediate-sized tracks may have to go through its four-car fleet.

Larson said he came away from the No. 5 team’s preseason gathering with his own bell and that another went to Daniels. A third one, Larson said, is safely kept in the team’s hauler for occasions such as Sunday’s.

As Larson said in Victory Lane, “Hopefully, we’re going to be ringing that thing a lot this year.”