DARLINGTON, S.C. – Kyle Larson was looking for a solid start to the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The driver of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet got much more than that with his win at Darlington Raceway.
Larson’s victory in the playoff opener locks him into the Round of 12. He led the final 55 laps to earn his first points-paying triumph since the spring race at Martinsville Speedway in April. Add in how close the 31-year-old driver has been to winning at Darlington in the past (three runner-up finishes) and the prestige of a Southern 500 victory and this one carries a little extra significance.
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"I'm happy to win a crown jewel, a place that we've been close to winning at and a place that we both have wanted to win at for a very long time," Larson said. "I would have been happy just to get a good solid race in (to start the playoffs), so to win, it feels obviously better.
"I know we'll be capable of winning every race in the playoffs but really I just want to put together solid races from start to finish and get stage points. Getting some stage wins would be great and then get some good finishes at the end of it."
Being locked in doesn't change Larson's mindset. In fact, he says it "doesn't take any pressure off" or "any focus away."
While Larson had five top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the second half of the regular season, he was not out front as much – 42 laps led in the 13 races before the playoff opener compared to the 582 laps led he had in the first 13 races of the season. The 2021 Cup Series champion has seemingly been in the mix to contend most weeks, but things haven’t always broken his and the team’s way. Larson has credited crew chief Cliff Daniels with bringing a calming presence to the team and helping to keep his mind focused on what’s ahead, not what has just happened.
"We had zero momentum all throughout the year," Daniels said as he described the team's ledger of finishes as a perfect heartbeat. "At any point, we would win, finish 30th, run second, finish 30th, wreck from the lead, finish 30th. It was just like that all year long.
"What I'm getting at is from a team-building perspective, we had to really focus in on ourselves and learning the lessons in the moment that we needed to learn from some adversity that we created or just overcome some of the challenges that were thrown our way. Just set ourselves up to have that resilience within the team and kind of have that steady mind within the team, so that if we ever had the good fortune to have a top-five day going and we could close it out that we're ready to do that. We've been knocked around a bit this season, but we're battle-tested and we're going to keep marching forward."
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Since first being paired together ahead of their championship season in 2021, Larson and Daniels’ bond has strengthened. Now in their third season together, the two have combined for 16 wins – the most in the sport in that period.
"Our relationship has grown a lot over the last handful of years," Daniels said. "The way our year has gone, it's been easy to get discouraged at times, and I've tried to be there to help. Kind of twofold -- keep him accountable when we need to and be his biggest supporter and biggest cheerleader because we all know he has the talent. When he gets out front, executes a good restart and does all the things that we know he can do, he's dynamite."
Next up on the schedule for Larson, Daniels and the No. 5 team are Kansas Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. In their march to the 2021 title, the team won at both those tracks in the playoffs. The team is looking to continue to add to their playoff point total of 22 that carries forward into the next two rounds.
"The way we see it as a team is we're still behind on playoff points," Daniels said. "We got five (at Darlington), but when they reset to the next round, we're still going to be a little bit behind in the reset. We've got some catching up to do. We're certainly grateful to have this win and going to take this momentum and build on it, but we've still got a bit of a deficit that we created with our season that we've got to overcome. There's more points and wins out there to go get and that's on us to go do it."