Looking back on the statistics from last season, it is easy to see why Kyle Larson won the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship. he was the biggest winner a year ago, scoring 10 victories in a season where nobody else earned more than four. In addition, Larson led the Cup Series in top fives, top 10s, laps led, and overall playoff points accumulated. The final points standings paint a picture of a dominant driver who steamrolled the competition with very little resistance.
However, those who followed the Cup Series in 2021 week by week might remember that it took some time for Larson to really get going. The No. 5 team did score its first win together four weeks into the year, and Larson showed a lot of speed even before that initial victory. But as he adjusted to his new surroundings at Hendrick Motorsports, he and the No. 5 team struggled to put complete races together. As a result, Larson was only ninth in overall points as late as 11 races into the season. At that same time, he was one of 10 drivers who had exactly one win. Only Martin Truex Jr. had posted multiple victories so far.
The next race of the season, held at Darlington Raceway, resulted in a third victory for Truex with Larson running second. While Truex may have won the battle that day, Darlington proved to be a turning point in Larson’s season. The No. 5 team finished second two more times before going on a three-race winning streak (four if you include the non-points All-Star Race). The last win in Larson’s streak came a year ago at Nashville Superspeedway, where he led 264 of 300 laps and looked almost unbeatable for most of the day. He almost added one additional win to the streak the following week at Pocono Raceway. However, a blown tire on the final lap blocked Larson from victory lane in the Cup Series for the first time in more than a month.
Even after all that, Larson still was not the points leader. While the No. 5 team was working through its growing pains, Denny Hamlin was methodically knocking out top 10 finishes almost every week. Larson’s winning streak had erased most of Hamlin’s points lead, but the No. 5 team came up just short of overtaking the No. 11. Larson spent the next several races chipping away at Hamlin’s points lead, eventually tying him with three races to go in the regular season. Larson then took the points lead for himself one week later, maintaining the gap until the conclusion of the regular season, which ended with Larson 18 points ahead of Hamlin.
Larson’s summertime run in 2021 was quite a remarkable accomplishment. But a year later, it has been almost completely forgotten about because he was somehow even better during the playoffs. Larson’s postseason included five more wins, complete with another three in a row that guaranteed his passage to the championship race. It was fitting that Larson had to beat Hamlin, the most consistent, Truex, the early season winner, and defending champion Chase Elliott to win the title. Of course, Larson did, and in doing so he overshadowed the memory of how much the No. 5 team improved during the summer and practically erased the memory of their uneven start to the season.
Returning to the present, we have already reached the equivalent point in 2022 at which Larson’s first winning streak concluded last year. But this time, Larson has not broken out of the pack and emerged as a dominant driver. Nobody has. Going into Sunday’s race at Nashville, 12 drivers had won at least one race in 2022, but there were only four drivers with multiple wins. Each of those drivers only had two wins apiece. Additionally, the top 10 were separated by only 92 points. Compare that to the same time last year when William Byron was fourth in points but trailed Hamlin by 100. The parity that ultimately didn’t hold up last season has continued longer into 2022.
Larson is not one of the four drivers with multiple wins. He hasn’t been to victory lane since winning at Auto Club Speedway the second week of the season. But that is not to say that Larson has had a bad year. There are four early season races that have weighed the No. 5 team down points wise. But in the last 10 events prior to Nashville, Larson has finished outside the top 15 only twice. While the No. 5 team is not quite as fast as last year, they are still faster than most.
The problem, much like early in 2021, is that mistakes have prevented the team from finishing up front on days where they have brought fast cars to the track. Consider Darlington last month where Larson had arguably the best car early in the race but spun out working his way through the field, an incident which may have contributed to him blowing an engine later that afternoon. At Sonoma Raceway two weeks ago, Larson had possibly the best car in the field, but losing a wheel under green late in the race took away any chance he had at victory. Even on Sunday at Nashville, a pit road speeding penalty buried Larson deep in the field, although he did ultimately recover to finish fourth.
Despite these struggles, Larson is going to be a driver to watch as the regular season concludes. The Gen 7 car might have erased some of the speed advantage Hendrick Motorsports held last year, and Larson is going to be without crew chief Cliff Daniels for a while after the loose wheel incident. Yet this is still a team that has the capability to emerge as a dominant force in the second half of the season. If Larson’s championship run in 2021 isn’t enough evidence of that, remember how many times Jimmie Johnson looked good, but perhaps not dominant, throughout the regular season, only to overwhelm the competition once the postseason began.
Before the checkered flag falls at Daytona International Speedway in August, somebody will have separated themselves from the pack and established themselves as the driver to beat for the championship. Larson provided a roadmap for how to do it last year, even with some early season struggles. One year later, as the No. 5 team continues to search for its footing, Larson may have the rest of the field right where he wants them.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southwest Florida.
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