Kyle Larson earned this trophy the old-fashioned way. The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driver led the most laps and swept both stage wins but still had to hold off a hard-charging, equally motivated Christopher Bell at the start/finish line to claim a dramatic victory in Sunday’s South Point 400 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Round of 8 opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
THE MODERATOR: Kyle Larson, you punched your ticket to the Championship 4 in Phoenix with an incredible run out there. Walk us through your race from your perspective.
KYLE LARSON: It was a really good race for us and our team. We were able to get the lead early. Kind of struggling with my balance out on the lead early in the race. I was really loose. Made some big adjustments, got our balance to a better spot. Still wasn’t quite perfect.
Had some cautions work out in the first stage to get the first stage win. Then the second stage, I got really loose and about crashed off of two. Then the caution came out shortly after that. Kind of got to rerack ’em, put new tires on, go win that stage.
Just a lot of cautions fell at the right time throughout the race. Same thing in the third stage. The pit crew did a great job on that final stop to get us control of the race. Kind of stretch out enough to where I knew they were going to be coming at the end. Just was going to hope that I had enough time to hold on, which thankfully we did.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll open the floor for questions.
The finish with Bell on your tail, were you confident that you were going to be able to hold him off?
KYLE LARSON: No, I wasn’t confident. The 43 let us go, which I was very thankful for. Then I was like, the whole way down the back, I was hoping the 38 was going to run the middle or the top. I wanted that clean air for the bottom. When he pulled down to the bottom, I knew I couldn’t follow him because it was going to choke me down too much.
I didn’t really know what to do at that point. I thought my best bet or an opportunity for me to at least hold on to the lead offer of four was to go to the middle and hope I had enough grip. I hadn’t been there that whole run.
I peeled to the middle and was really loose, knew that Christopher was going to be able to get a run. Thankfully he wasn’t able to get to my outside before the exit. Kind of looked in my mirror and had to zig and zag a little bit.
He hit me square in the back bumper, kind of closed off the win for me.
Yeah, got much closer than I wanted it to. Thankfully we were able to edge out a win. Thankfully Christopher ran us really clean there off of four.
You gave him that thumbs up. What’s the respect level between the two of you?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, I mean, that was just me kind of showing respect and saying thanks in a way for having us race it out.
Obviously I’m happy because I won, but he’s always been a really fair, clean racer. We’ve had numbers and numbers of battles in stockcars, but mostly in dirt track. I’m typically the one that is the aggressor or the aggressive one in our battles. Probably push the limit of being dirty sometimes.
For him to continue to race me clean, I definitely have a ton of respect for him. Always have. In my opinion, he’s one of the best race car drivers in the world, and could do everything that I get to do outside of NASCAR if his team would let him.
It’s just fun to get to battle with a guy like that. I knew his car was going to be good the whole race. I got to lead right off the bat, then he was better than me there the first run. I knew he was going to be the guy to beat probably all race.
Yeah, a lot of fun. Glad we were able to come out the winner.
The shared background that you have, the Chili Bowl battles, midgets, any significance to take that and duel here on a bigger spotlight?
KYLE LARSON: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know how fans view it. I really enjoy getting to race a guy in the Cup Series that when we were starting out racing with each other, either of us weren’t in the Cup Series.
I think his story and all of that, me being with Toyota, then not, moving forward with them, them kind of pushing him along after they felt like they lost an opportunity on me, I feel like I take pride a little bit in that, that he is in the Cup Series maybe partly because of me.
But then, too, I mean, he kicked my ass for a few years straight, like every race. I don’t know if I ever beat him. Yeah, he made me work really hard to get better as a driver, especially on the dirt track stuff.
Yeah, we’ve had our run-ins along the way, just tight racing for wins and stuff. Then now I feel like we actually get along and we talk quite a bit, then get to race with a lot of respect on Sundays on TV in front of millions of race fans.
Yeah, it’s cool. Just need to get to race with a guy like that. I’m sure he’ll be one of the guys to beat at Phoenix, too, when he’s in the Final 4.
Can you walk me through your week. You won the Sprint car championship, the Indy rookie orientation. What has this week been like for you?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, I mean, it’s been a memorable week. A little bit maybe crazier than normal. But my weeks stay pretty crazy. It felt pretty normal in a way.
It was awesome obviously to close out the High Limit Championship on Tuesday at Lincoln Park. From there, get focused on driving an INDYCAR for the first time. That all went really smooth and was an awesome experience getting to do something I’ve dreamt of for a long time, that’s just make laps in an INDYCAR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Yeah, the ROP went great. Came here to Vegas knowing we were going to have a car capable of winning and was able to get the job done with a lot of luck along the way. Just a cool week and one that I’ll definitely never forget.
What was going through your mind when you were sliding off of turn two?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, I mean, I was getting really loose at that point. It’s so bumpy in one and two that when you are loose, it makes it even worse going across those bumps.
I got a little out of shape, had a moment, thought I had it saved. Usually when you do that, it just aggravates things. It stepped out really quick.
Honestly, I was thinking I was just going to spin, then hit the inside wall. About that time I clipped the outside wall, got lucky. Was just thinking that I was going to do it again because now my right rear tire was scorched. I was so loose for the next however many laps before the caution came out.
Thankfully that caution came out, kind of got to take a deep breath and really forget about that, try to forget about that moment as quick as possible, get refocused on the race ahead.
How do you think the racing on intermediates has evolved with the Gen 7 car over the last year?
KYLE LARSON: So, yeah, I mean, I think the intermediate stuff, I don’t know how it looked on TV, but from my vantage point, I thought this was a great race. As big as a lead as the leader got to as much as I did that last run, they were able to still catch me at the end, we have a photo finish basically.
Whatever it is about the Next Gen car, I’m sure it was an accident when they built it, I don’t mean that negatively, but I don’t think anybody can draw a car up to where you’re almost at a disadvantage while leading.
With the Next Gen car, the leader, I don’t know what it is, but like you have so much more load with the clean air on your car that you wear out the right rear tire so much faster. That’s why the leader always gets loose. That’s why Bell was really loose in front of us the run before the last one. There were five, six, seven of us all close to him.
Every run, the leader, he has the most of a balance shift throughout the run. Yeah, just makes the racing really tight because the leader has his hands full after 15, 20 laps and can’t really get away.
That’s what I was fighting with at the end. Yeah, it’s cool because on TV it keeps us all really close and the finishes seem to be really exciting because of it.
Yesterday you came in here and said you like this track, this round. Now you’re locked into the championship. What is your plan? Do you trophy hunt now?
KYLE LARSON: Yeah, I mean, obviously it’s nice to win and lock in, you can focus on Phoenix. At the same point you really can’t look too far ahead of yourself. There’s still two other races before then.
I put a lot of pressure on myself going to Homestead. I want to have a great run there. I want to dominate honestly. I want to win both stages by 15 seconds and win the race by 30 (smiling). That’s my goal.
I’m not thinking really ahead of Homestead yet. Martinsville, as well. I want to go there and have another good run like we had earlier this year, go into Phoenix with a lot of confidence and momentum.
I think if tomorrow I start worrying about Phoenix, then had two bad runs at Homestead and Martinsville, I think that would kill our momentum and confidence for Phoenix.
Just put a lot of pressure on myself and our team to not get complacent, and treat every race like it means something.
In 2021 when you went into the Championship 4, you never had been there before, all new. Even as you focus on Homestead and Martinsville, how will this feel different having that experience knowing what’s ahead, not having to go in eyes wide open?
KYLE LARSON: I don’t know. I mean, it’s tough saying. I don’t really know anything about when I was in the Final 4 at Phoenix last time surprised me. I mean, although I hadn’t been in the Final 4 before, you’re still part of the race. It’s still another race. I think on that aspect it didn’t change anything then.
Maybe I guess seeing how the media week is going to be different this year versus then. COVID a little bit then. I don’t know. I mean, I think more than anything, I’m glad I won and locked in, but I like that now I can go to Homestead, Martinsville and just race. You’re not really focused on points.
You can be a little more aggressive now, trying to, yeah, just win really is the goal. At the same point, you don’t want to piss anybody off before we get to Phoenix, so that’s also a goal, is to race everybody fairly and not be a part of the story really the next couple weeks, other than winning would be great.
Yeah, I don’t know. Just try not to get too far ahead of ourselves really.
Does winning this race now give you the edge over William?
KYLE LARSON: I don’t know. William still had a really good day. Car speed-wise was probably off of what they’re used to having here it seems like this year.
Again, I mean, he took what he had and made the most of it today. I haven’t seen the points. I still don’t take my eyes off of William at all. Him and his team, they’ve done the best job overall from start of the weekend to the end of the weekend every weekend. Whether they win or not, they seem to maximize their days.
Yeah, but there’s a lot of tough competitors, too. I think Ryan Blaney, honestly he surprised me today. I felt like this wasn’t going to be a great round for him, or at least start of a round. I thought he did a great job today.
Every one of the teams in the Round of 8, I think we’re up there kind of battling. Yeah, it will be interesting as we go into these next two. Thankfully we’ve got the win and don’t have to worry about points.
Phoenix in the spring was a great race for you. Led the most laps. Couple wild restarts at the end spoiled it. What stands out when you look back at that day? What can you take from that day?
KYLE LARSON: Honestly, what I take from it is just a missed opportunity to win on my part. The team did everything on their end to get us in position to win. Again, William just executed a better restart than me, was able to get that win.
It sucks to not win, but there’s so much to be learned from that final restart, just really the way the whole race played out.
Yeah, I mean, I’ll study that a lot in case I’m in that position again and try to do a better job going forward. But, yes, Phoenix is a great track for us. Short tracks in general have been our strong suit this year. We’d love to go to Phoenix and have a great car again.
As you saw today, versus the spring, William and I were way better than the field in the spring here, and look at the field. Everybody got a lot better coming back. It’s going to be the same thing at Phoenix when we get there in a few weeks. Everybody is going to be a lot better than they were in the spring.
Just got to work really hard and study and try to execute a good weekend.
You won the championship two years ago. How does this year feel different as a group?
KYLE LARSON: Honestly, it feels very similar. I mean, I know in the win column it doesn’t show that, but sheer speed and stuff, I feel like we’ve been very similar to where we were in 2021. We’ve probably contended for as many wins as we did then. It’ll just tougher. These Next Gen races are tougher to win than back then is all.
In a lot of ways it feels similar. I’ve said that all along, since the beginning of the year, this feels very similar to 2021. Thankfully we’re in position like we were in 2021. Hopefully we can cap it off like we did then, too.
We’ve seen your team be lights out on pit road. What does that do for you in the race car? Does that pump you up?
KYLE LARSON: I love cautions and I love pit stops (smiling). I do. I look forward to coming down pit road. I have got a ton of confidence in my guys. They showed today why they’re one of the best on pit road.
Hendrick Motorsports as a whole really, all four teams, even the development teams, all do a great job. That’s a huge thank you to the coaching staff and everybody there in the pit department.
Yeah, they’ve had to work on it for sure. Last year we were on ranked great on pit road, where this year we’ve been in the top two or three all season long.
I definitely look forward to coming down pit road right now because I know my guys can get me out in front.
THE MODERATOR: Kyle, congratulations on the victory. Good luck next week in Homestead. We’ll see you in the Championship 4.