CONCORD, N.C. – The No. 5 team of crew chief Cliff Daniels and the No. 24 team of crew chief Rudy Fugle gave it their all in the NASCAR Cup Series championship race on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
In the race, driver Kyle Larson and the No. 5 HendrickCars.com team finished third, while driver William Byron and the No. 24 Axalta team placed fourth. Unfortunately, for both of them, one of their Championship 4 competitors, Ryan Blaney, finished second to take home the 2023 title. The top finisher among the Championship 4 drivers earns the title in NASCAR’s championship race format.
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On Wednesday, Daniels appeared on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s "The Morning Drive" to discuss the weekend and how the team will be better for the experience. Larson got the championship lead off pit road with 35 laps to go but couldn’t hold off a hard-charging Blaney.
"We did not meet our expectations for what our goals were," Daniels said. "It certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort from the team and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. A lot of prep went into the weekend. A lot of prep went into the race car and we just got beat. As disappointing as that is, we got beat by a car that turned a little bit better than ours and did a few things just a little bit better than ours.
"I think our team executed the day really well with adjustments that we made to our car throughout the race, our pit crew on pit road did just a phenomenal job of really keeping us in the hunt – getting us off of pit road with the lead of the Championship 4 cars (on lap 278). Our car just wasn’t good enough to give Kyle (Larson) what he needed to keep the spot that we had.
"We’re taking the opportunity to reflect on the race, our season and make the notes that we need to make to learn all the things that we need to do just to get better. That will be our focus this offseason. A lot of strength in our team. A lot of good years and a lot of good races ahead of us. We’ll take this in stride and keep moving."
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Byron, Fugle and the No. 24 started from the pole position, won the opening stage and led the first 92 laps. The 25-year-old driver held the championship lead for much of the first two stages. Appearing on "The Morning Drive" on Tuesday, Fugle noted that the turning point came around the midpoint of the 312-lap race.
"We had all been fighting loose in, loose off. It was everyone’s main complaint and we were adjusting for that and making the car better," Fugle said. "Somewhere around lap 150 the track took enough shade in (turns) three and four and took enough rubber in the center of the corners that now the center being tight was our biggest problem.
"From there on out, we were one adjustment behind. We were making the correct adjustments from there on out the rest of the race, but we should have loosened up when we tightened up. We were just one step behind our competitors on where we needed to be and couldn’t get caught back up."
Even though the season did not end with a championship for either group, both teams still had very successful seasons. Under Fugle’s leadership, Byron had his best year of his six full-time seasons in the Cup Series. He led NASCAR’s top series in wins (six), stage wins (nine), top-10 finishes (21) and was tied for the most top-fives (15) with Larson. He set new career highs in wins, top-five finishes, top-10s, laps led (1,016), average finish (11.0) and in the points standings (third).
"To have that kind of strong season is really good," Fugle said. "Our team keeps growing, climbing up the hill and getting better every time. All of those things make me proud and make me hungry to go again."
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The No. 5 team scored the second-most points-paying wins on the season (four) and notched the All-Star Race victory in NASCAR’s historic return to North Wilkesboro Speedway. Two of those points-paying wins came in the playoffs. Larson became the first driver in the Next Gen era (since 2022) to lead over 1,000 laps – he led 1,127 laps (and was later joined by Byron in that club). While there were struggles at times, the team showed its mettle in adversity.
"Through the battle-testing we had, we proved our resilience from a lot of those situations and from rebounding from a lot of those situations," Daniels said. "Momentum is a real thing. It can be very easy to lose momentum when you are competing at a high level and that gets taken from you or you don’t get the result that you want or you have a bad week. Our team was able to stay on track through a lot of those challenges this year.
"There are so many valuable lessons that we learned along the way both in our failures and our successes that I know is going to make us better and stronger moving forward."