AVONDALE, Ariz. – Kyle Larson enters Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series championship race at Phoenix Raceway as the lone driver in the Championship 4 to already win a title in NASCAR’s top series. The 31-year-old driver doesn’t feel like that gives him any sort of leg up on the field. He’s just ready to capitalize on the moment.
"This is an awesome opportunity to have a chance to race for another Cup Series championship," Larson said during Championship 4 Media Day at Phoenix on Thursday afternoon. "Win, lose or draw, this is a cool opportunity to be in. I hope to capitalize on it. I’m just excited for the moment and ready for the race this weekend. I know our team has prepped hard. I have a lot of confidence in Cliff (Daniels, crew chief) and his leadership. Everybody is going to be prepared for Sunday’s race."
On Sunday, Larson will compete against teammate William Byron as well as Ryan Blaney and Christopher Bell for the 2023 Cup Series championship.
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This season, Larson has notched four points-paying victories with two coming in the playoffs – wins to open the Round of 16 at Darlington Raceway and the Round 8 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The latter secured his spot in the Championship 4 for the second time in three years. In the spring at Phoenix, Larson sat on the pole and led a race-high 201 laps before finishing fourth.
Last season, Larson earned three wins and reached the Round of 12 on the driver’s side, while the team got to the Championship 4. The disappointment of that season has led to some self-reflection and served as a motivator this year for the 2021 Cup Series champion.
"Last year felt like a terrible year," Larson said. "Minus that mistake at Charlotte (ROVAL), we were still going to be in the final four. Our team made it to the final four and it felt like a terrible season.
"That opened my eyes to, like, our team is so good and our cars are so fast. If I just clean it up a little bit, we can make it again. I think I just cleaned it up just a little bit and we made it again. I think if we continue to do that, we should be a force every year."
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The steady leadership of crew chief Cliff Daniels has been the constant since Larson jumped in the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet for the start of the 2021 season. They are the winningest driver-crew chief duo over the past three seasons with 16 victories. The up-and-down nature of their 2023 season -- 14 top-five finishes juxtaposed with 11 finishes outside the top 25 -- has not only made this group battle-tested but also stronger as a unit as it prepares for the title race.
"It’s a really good team growth exercise to go through some of the tough times and learn how to communicate and lean on each other and find the core strength that you need to come out on the backside of a weekend," Daniels said following the team’s win at Las Vegas last month.
"I think the two years under our belt mixed with such a volatile season that we’ve had, we’ve had to learn how to play tough and be resilient. I think our team is in a very, very strong position right now."
Larson’s pit crew played a key role with a clutch stop that got him from fourth to first in the 2021 championship race. They also helped put him in position to win last month’s race at Las Vegas with a fast stop that handed their driver the lead. The No. 5 HendrickCars.com pit crew has the second-fastest average four-tire pit stop time in the series at 11.071 seconds. The pit crew consists of Blaine Anderson (front-tire changer), R.J. Barnette (tire carrier), Brandon Harder (fueler), Brandon Johnson (jackman) and Calvin Teague (rear-tire changer).
"Getting the number one pit stall would be very important and a key to winning on Sunday," Larson said. "We’ll put a lot of emphasis on qualifying. My pit crew has been so good all year. I have a lot of confidence in them to put down a good stop when it matters most."
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Should Larson win on Sunday, he would become the third active full-time driver to win multiple championships, with both of those coming in the elimination-style playoff era (since 2014).
"Winning one (championship) was amazing, a dream come true," Larson said. "I didn’t ever dream of winning multiple championships. Now that I have this opportunity in front of me, for sure I want to win another one and get further up the history list of accomplishments.
"We’ll just give it our best effort this weekend. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be."
Tune in to watch the championship race on Sunday, Nov. 5, at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).