Did You Notice? … Kyle Larson is the worst-performing Hendrick Motorsports driver this season?
I know, I know … that’s like saying Larson is the fourth-best player in an MLB lineup that has a record-setting offense. HMS has been far and away the best NASCAR Cup Series organization in 2022, putting all of their drivers in victory lane (and playoff position) within the first 11 races.
The reigning NASCAR champion, Larson still has racked up five top-five finishes and six top 10s. He started on the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 and earned his first ever top five at a pack race (fourth at Talladega Superspeedway). Larson’s six playoff points are tied for fifth in the series and he’s a respectable ninth in the standings, 117 behind teammate Chase Elliott.
But ninth is actually the worst among the HMS quartet. Larson has also declined in some of his more important metrics compared to last season.
KYLE LARSON: YEAR-BY-YEAR COMPARISON (12 RACES)
The one that concerns me is position differential. Larson has the second-best average start, trailing only Ryan Blaney but the second-largest dropoff in finishing position (only Denny Hamlin is worse).
At some point, the law of averages was bound to catch up with Larson and he’s had some circumstances outside his control (an engine failure at Phoenix Raceway, a push-gone-bad by Hamlin at Atlanta Motor Speedway). But those DNFs also include two wrecks of his own creation, one late at Daytona International Speedway and an early spin at Darlington Raceway that might have contributed in cooking the engine.
Known as one of the more aggressive drivers on the circuit, Larson’s had a bit of a learning curve with the NASCAR Next Gen chassis. His younger teammate Byron has adapted more easily while others, like Ross Chastain, have seen the car play right into the hands of their driving style.
How does Larson’s title defense compare to past seasons under the current format?
NASCAR CUP CHAMPIONS: ONE YEAR LATER (12 RACES)
|Year||Driver||Wins||Top 5||Top 10||Laps Led||Points|
|2018||Martin Truex Jr.||1||7||7||277||8th|
Larson’s numbers through this point track closest to 2017 Johnson, 2020 Kyle Busch and Elliott last year. We know what happened in each case; Johnson tanked out of the first round of the playoffs and Busch endured arguably the worst season of his career. Elliott did the best of the trio, sneaking into the Championship 4 despite going winless in the postseason, but still failed to score a single win on an oval track.
Which way will Larson start trending? We’re about to find out over the next month or so. Beginning with this weekend at Kansas Speedway, a race Larson won from the pole last fall, he’s the defending winner in four of the next five events. The lone exception is Worldwide Technology Raceway, a new track to Cup where everyone starts from a level playing field.
It was that stretch where Larson started separating himself, racking up playoff points while showcasing the consistency needed to run for a championship. Others within the HMS orbit are already doing that (Byron especially). Will the No. 5 step up to the plate?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Denny Hamlin already has as many finishes outside the top 10 (11) than he had during the entire 2021 season. And there’s 24 races left to go. Hamlin’s 22.3 average finish would be the worst of his career and is significantly behind drivers like Michael McDowell (18.8), Ty Dillon (20.7) and Cole Custer (21.9).
- It feels like Kaulig Racing is finally getting their Cup program together. Justin Haley has three straight top-12 finishes and his third at Darlington was the first top 10 for him on an oval outside of Daytona and Talladega.
- It is not lost on NASCAR they lost out in the 18-49 demographic in a head-to-head battle with the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Miami. They still won the overall audience (2.614 to 2.066 million) but F1 edged them in the age group advertisers covet by some 218,000 viewers. The sport is looking closely at what F1 is doing to tap into an audience that is following Drive To Survive religiously (A NASCAR reality series that connects? It’s a must, and nothing they’ve cooked up has connected yet). With all of that said, it’s important to note F1 had wall-to-wall advertising and the advantage of their race running on network television (NBC). Being on a major broadcast network versus cable still makes a difference.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.