AVONDALE, Ariz. — Hendrick Motorsports held two of the cherished Championship 4 spots with drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron heading into Sunday‘s title bout at Phoenix Raceway, but walked away just short of another taste of championship glory.
Larson was runner-up to a triumphant Ryan Blaney after Sunday‘s NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix, 2.043 seconds the difference between them when the checkered flag waved. Another 2.076 seconds back sat Byron.
In the end, the respective Nos. 5 and 24 Chevrolets didn‘t appear what they needed to fend off Team Penske‘s No. 12 Ford. Blaney finished second in the race but ahead of Larson, Byron and Joe Gibbs Racing‘s Christopher Bell, doing all he needed to do to win the title. Larson finished third and Byron fourth.
“Just got beat, plain and simple,” Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon told NASCAR.com. “I mean, even on pit road, I thought our pit crews were amazing and execution of the race was fantastic. Just couldn’t make enough adjustments to get the car to be better than Ryan Blaney, the 12 and Penske. So congrats to them. I mean, what they did through the playoffs was pretty impressive and you‘ve gotta give them credit. Ryan will be a great champion.”
Larson has experienced the highest of highs in NASCAR, winning the 2021 championship at this track two years prior. He battled a lack of grip from the beginning of the race, leading crew chief Cliff Daniels to continually consider changes to their Chevrolet.
Larson and Blaney had a fierce, enthralling battle for what would decide the championship following the final restart with 31 laps to go, trading positions, diving across each other‘s lanes lap after lap and leaning on each other. Larson‘s car was clearly improved, but just never as strong as Blaney‘s.
“I think the 12 just had a better car,” Daniels told NASCAR.com. “You know, I hate myself a bit that’s the fact. But that’s the fact, right? And with the better car (for Blaney), I think Kyle did everything that he could do. He did a great job on the restart. He fought and battled really hard and really tough.
“Very proud of his effort, and it goes right in line with the effort for the whole team this weekend. We didn’t stop fighting and just came up a bit short.”
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The Phoenix fray did get off to an unusual start for the No. 5 team. In Friday‘s practice session, the diffuser underneath the car fell down on the opening run, which “kind of spooked us,” Daniels said Friday, and led to some additional once-overs before sending the car back on track. That led to even further work on the car ahead of Saturday‘s qualifying session, Daniels revealed Sunday.
“Our weekend started a little bit weird in practice,” Daniels said. “Had a couple of issues we kind of had to fight through and overcome and there’s so much strength in the team from the guys who kind of had to rebuild the car overnight from Friday to Saturday. And we pretty much rebuilt it.
“Our road crew, the guys that changed all the parts, changed the pieces, did everything, they had to (display) a lot of resilience there. And, you know, fighting through all that and taking your car that was probably about a 10th-place car in practice, to get it to be a top-five car and then finishing third, you know, there’s a lot of team strength in that. Of course, we’re disappointed with the outcome. But you know, all in all, a great team effort.”
To the surprise of nobody, the No. 5 crew of Blaine Anderson, Brandon Harder, Brandon Johnson, Calvin Teague and R.J. Barnette was clutch all over again.
Four of those five crewmen went over the wall in 2021 to help propel Larson to the championship lead ahead of the race‘s final pit stop. That group — plus Anderson — pulled off similar magic Sunday. Officially, the stats will show a one-spot gain for Larson after stops at Lap 276, thanks to Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones‘ teams electing to take two tires. In reality, it was a three-spot gain as he leapt then-leader Ross Chastain, Martin Truex Jr. and Byron.
“That was the only reason we were in the hunt was pit road (and) pit crew obviously,” Larson said. “The way we executed our pit-road lights, the engineers and everybody who maps that out and everything, I felt like, yeah, I just wanted to keep coming down pit road.”
With that track position in hand and ahead of Blaney, Larson went to battle on the race‘s final restart. Dicey crossovers, rubbing fenders in side-draft attempts, diving to the apron of the race track — their fight had everything. But Larson knew he was playing from behind no matter where his car was.
“When I saw him get to third as quickly as he did, I knew I was going to be in trouble,” Larson said. “I felt like I could maybe hold off William for the length of that run. Holding off Ryan was going to be tough.
“Yeah, he could just move around a lot better than me, kind of be more comfortable on the edge. He definitely looked loose, but he could still push the car. I couldn’t push the car really further than what I was.
“I felt really committed to the bottom. Even when I would move around and make my car feel better, it was slower on lap time. I knew I was in a little bit of trouble and was going to try to put up a fight. Yeah, I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to hold him off.”
Emotions were high for their teammates on the No. 24 car following Byron‘s first Championship 4 appearance. Gordon rested an arm around crew chief Rudy Fugle‘s shoulders as the pair stood just beyond the Chevrolet‘s left rear, watching Byron go through the motions of giving a television interview moments after defeat.
Though the focus rested on Byron, Fugle was processing what went wrong for the No. 24 team. Byron qualified on the pole position and led 95 laps Sunday — most of the Championship 4 contenders and second only to eventual race winner Chastain who led 157 circuits.
“I think we were in the hunt the whole time, so just didn’t have enough at the very end,” Fugle said. “Probably missed one adjustment somewhere midway and got behind just enough for him to beat us. They did great. All three of us that were there at the end were all good cars. It was just, they were a little bit better.”
Gordon knew not much he said would lift Fugle‘s spirits, but he found it important to be there for both teams in moments after defeat, and particularly Fugle after his first title hunt didn‘t pan out.
“I just know how much it means to him,” Gordon said. “I know how much he commits and dedicates his time and his efforts and working with a team to get them here. And you know how bad they wanted it.
“And so you feel for those guys because you want to say, ‘Hey, don’t worry, let’s do it next year. You had a great year all those things.‘ But yeah, right now, there’s probably nothing that I can say, other than just how proud I am and feel like they just did an amazing job this year.”
Byron and Fugle enjoyed a career year in the Cup Series — a series-high six wins and 21 top 10s, 15 of which were top-five finishes too. They seemed on their way to yet another checkered flag, but instead have to settle for third in the championship rundown.
“It‘s a bit of a letdown based on how we started the race,” Byron said. “As soon as we got into Stage 2, trying to figure out how do we manage what we have, maybe make it a little bit better if we can. But we just need more on the short tracks. We just struggled as a team on the short tracks.
“We had a great season, a lot to be proud of, a lot of really solid races, communicating well as a team. I feel like all that stuff can just go up a notch hopefully, just have a bit more speed at certain tracks that we know are important.
“Definitely down the stretch here, it was tough. We didn’t have really what we needed, but that’s OK.”