CONCORD, N.C. -- The No. 5 pit crew became the heroes for Kyle Larson and the rest of the No. 5 team on Sunday when their final pit stop during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway proved to be the help Larson needed to win his first Cup title.
From the start of the race, Larson bobbed in and out of the lead spot but was continuously battling other Championship 4 drivers. As the sun started to set of the track and the temperatures cooled, Larson would run well during restarts but would drop off during the long runs. He was fourth when a caution for debris came out with 30 laps left in the race, giving his pit crew one more opportunity to set Larson up for a stellar restart.
“In the beginning of the race, we did struggle for the first couple of stops,” jackman Brandon Johnson said. “We were hoping and praying for one more stop. I knew if we did get another one, we were going to come through. Everyone on this team is experienced.”
No. 5 rear-tire changer Calvin Teague also agreed that the crew’s first few stops were not up to par for them. Throughout the playoffs the team boasted of the best average four-tire pit stop time of playoffs, he felt their earlier stops did not showcase their capabilities.
“You never want to end the year on a stop that wasn’t as good as it should have been,” Teague said. “We were just hoping for an opportunity to come down, pick up one spot, maybe two. I never imagined we’d pick up three. We knew we could probably do it, but we knew it had to be a knockout stop.”
The pit crew cranked out an 11.79-second pit stop – the second-fastest Cup Series stop this season. That allowed Larson to jump the other three Championship 4 drivers into first place coming off pit road. With 25 laps left, the race restarted and Larson held off the field to win the event and the Cup Series championship. Tire carrier R.J. Barnette said he never expected the last stop of the race to be the catalyst the team needed to win.
“We got the caution – when it came down to it, we were like, ‘Let’s get one (spot), maybe two’ because the Nos. 11 (Denny Hamlin) and 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) and 9 (Chase Elliott) are some of the best cars on pit road,” Barnette said. “To pass one is a great accomplishment. To pass them all? You’re not going to do that again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Larson credited his pit crew over the radio while tears of joy ran down his face as he took a victory lap around Phoenix Raceway. It was momentous for the entire team, but they aren’t relishing in it for too long. All four Hendrick Motorsports pit crews already are back to work preparing for all the changes that will come with the Next Gen Chevrolets in 2022.
“We’re back out here two days later trying to figure out new pit stops,” front-tire changer Donnie Tasser said. “Hopefully, we carry this momentum over.”