If ever there was a major test of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team’s mettle, it happened Sunday afternoon at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.
Kyle Larson and company entered the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 as heavy favorites to advance to the Round of 8. The regular-season champion had six points-paying wins under his belt and has been as dominant as anyone at road courses this season. They had the power to control their own destiny. And then, they didn’t. Literally.
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Early in the race, Larson relayed over the radio that his No. 5 Chevrolet was losing voltage — quickly. Teammate Alex Bowman, whose problem proved to be a separate issue in hindsight, voiced the same concern to add to the intensity.
“Had a lot of different emotions throughout the middle portions of that race,” said Larson. “Thinking that this is so depressing and sad and crazy that I’m going to lose my shot at a championship because of an alternator issue.”
That issue — coupled with a bad day at Talladega Superspeedway — plummeted Larson below the elimination line by as many as 11 points in the live standings. For the first time in the 2021 playoffs, Larson’s title hopes were significantly in question.
But if there’s a will, there’s a way. And in crew chief Cliff Daniels’ mind, there were both.
“The guys did a great job to diagnose, and we had to come up with a plan on what to do to fix it,” said Daniels. “Had to think pretty fast on our feet. The tough part is, I try to operate with my gut feeling based on the information that’s right in front of me, the information we had that was very well-reviewed by me and Jesse (Saunders, car chief) and Steven (Legendre, engine tuner) for what we had to do. The pit crew was 100% onboard like we spelled out behind the pit box what our game plan was going to be. Made sense to do it the way we did.”
That spur-of-the-moment team meeting behind the pit box may have saved Larson’s championship hopes. After a caution came at the right time, the team was able to operate on the car and resolve the issue.
The No. 5 car rallied its way to the front of the field, overtaking Denny Hamlin on a late restart. The team never looked back en route to its series-high seventh checkered flag (not including the All-Star Race) this season.
“I’m glad I’m through. I’m glad I somehow got five more points to take into the next round for sure,” said Larson. “I think you look at probably where had I been in the same … you eliminate four cars out of this round, I’m much closer to the (elimination) line going into Martinsville, if I have an average first race, a bad second race, then we’re in an extra stressful situation going into Martinsville.”
The stress of elimination can mostly subside for now, as Larson regains his lead atop the playoff leaderboard — jumping back out to 42 points above the elimination line after the Roval rollercoaster.
The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs resume with the Round of 8 opener Sunday, Oct. 17 at Texas Motor Speedway for the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Just three races remain before the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway.