Kyle Larson was never particularly close to winning the Southern 500 on Sunday at Darlington Raceway. Still, he and the No. 5 team’s ability to salvage another eventful race might have once again protected their back-to-back championship chances.
Larson, the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion, entered the 2022 NASCAR Playoffs seeded fourth in the 16-driver postseason field thanks in part to a pair of wins during the 26-race regular season.
Kyle Larson and the No. 5 team salvaged a potentially devastating night at Darlington
Larson qualified seventh for the traditional Labor Day Weekend race at the track nicknamed “The Lady In Black.” It didn’t take long, however, before he and his Hendrick Motorsports team were in scramble mode.
The No. 5 car started to have electrical problems during Stage 1, and Larson had to bring the car to pit road so the team could figure out the problem and try to make repairs. Larson was four laps behind the leaders in 35th by the time he returned to the race track, and his championship hopes immediately looked to be in danger.
Then began a long, slow process Larson and the No. 5 team have now used multiple times to turn a potentially disastrous night into a positive.
Larson and his team used pit strategy and wave-arounds under caution to gain back two of those laps, but he spun out on Lap 193 of 367, which forced the team to rally back even more in the second half of the race.
He managed to stay two laps down despite slight damage to the car’s rear from the wreck and, by the end of Stage 2, had worked himself back onto the lead lap.
Larson ultimately rallied back to finish 12th. He now heads to Kansas Speedway for the second round of the playoffs seventh in the points standings and 17 points ahead of the first elimination cutline in the latest example of an underrated quality about the driver many of his peers consider the most talented driver in the sport.
He’s won in all sorts of cars across many different series
Larson is a prolific race car driver beyond just NASCAR. He has driven all sorts of cars on all sorts of different surfaces and track layouts, and he has been successful almost everywhere.
His 2021 season was a prime example. After he missed most of the 2020 season because of a derogatory term he used during an online-racing event, Larson signed with HMS and embarked on a season for the ages.
He won a Cup Series-high 10 races and his first career NASCAR championship while leading a record 2,581 laps in one of the more dominating seasons the sport has seen in recent memory.
That was only the success that was broadcast on national television, however. Larson started 87 races combined in 2021 and won an incredible 29 of them, including the famed Chili Bowl in January and the Knoxville Nationals in August.
His ability to win in any car at any time is reminiscent of NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart. However, Stewart told Autoweek that Larson was “better than I was” in June 2021, nearly five months before Larson capped his fantastic year with the Cup Series title.
All of that talent, combined with his employment at the most successful organization in NASCAR history, might make it easy to think Larson has it easy in the sense that he can routinely cruise to wins and championships because of his ability and the resources of his team.
Larson has pulled good finishes from calamitous races several times before
Then a race such as the Coca-Cola 600 in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway happens. Larson started the race from the back of the field after a qualifying crash. He then had multiple pit road penalties and on-track incidents that repeatedly sent him to the back of the field.
Almost miraculously, Larson drove to the lead with under 50 laps left before the race went into overtime, and he was caught up in one of the many incidents. Still, Larson finished ninth in what should have been a disastrous race.
The No. 5 team also fixed an electrical problem early in the 2021 playoff race at the Charlotte Roval, and Larson went on to win the event en route to his first NASCAR championship.
Larson is undoubtedly one of the best drivers in the country these days and drives for an organization with a record 13 championships. However, the determination and ability to climb back from almost any setback is the backbone of what keeps the No. 5 team a solid championship contender.
Stats courtesy of Racing Reference