Larson keeps Hendrick, Chevrolet in NASCAR driver's seat
By HANK KURZ Jr.
(AP) -- Kyle Larson spent the week watching videos of his 10-win, 2021 championship season, he said, “to remind myself that I used to be good."
He still is. Larson pulled away on a restart with 14 laps to go and easily won the NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway on Sunday.
"I just really wanted to look at old tape of myself and see where my mindset was and to see my confidence," Larson said after his 20th career victory in NASCAR's top series.
Larson started the final green flag run with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Josh Berry to his outside and beat Berry into the first turn. Berry, who is filling in for the injured Chase Elliott, held on for second, followed by Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell and Kevin Harvick.
It's the third victory of the season for the four-car Hendrick team and came less than a week after a 100-point penalty against each driver for using an illegal part was overturned by a NASCAR appeals panel. It also came with a fill-in crew chief in Kevin Meendering because the appeals panel upheld the four-race suspensions of all four team crew chiefs.
“I was just happy to fill a gap and help those guys out in a tough situation,” Meendering said. “This is a testament to all the hard work but those guys on that team and to Hendrick Motorsports,”
Chevrolet took the top three spots and has now won five of the seven races this season.
All the Hendrick cars except for Berry ran in contention all race, with William Byron, the only two-time winner this season, leading a race-high 117 laps and running fourth for a restart with 21 laps to go. The field bunched up heading into Turn 1, and Bell hit his left rear quarter panel, sending Byron spinning into the wall. He finished 24th.
“It looked like the 1 (Chastain) was inside the 20 (Bell) and the 20 overcooked the corner, had the fronts locked up and nailed us in the left rear,” Byron said. “It is what it is. I had a great race car."
Bell said he was trying to keep Chastain at bay.
“I tried to protect from him going to the inside and he still made it three-wide there at the last minute and there wasn’t enough room,” he said.
The cars never got on the track on Saturday because of rain, leading NASCAR to give them an extra set of tires, and even then, teams pitted for lightly used scuffs for the final green flag run. That paid off big for Berry and Michael McDowell, who stayed on the track during the previous green flag stop, then got the caution that made it pay off.
“Everybody on the team made some great calls,” Berry said. “I'm so glad they tried something different there at the end to just get us up front.”
McDowell turned it into a sixth-place finish. Todd Gilliland, the third driver who stayed on the track, turned in a 15th-place finish.
“Our car was really good on the long run and I think we were gonna be 15th or 16th, so you might as well go for it and see if you can’t come up with something good and it worked out,” McDowell said.
Denny Hamlin won the second stage with a last-lap pass of Bell, then got a great pit stop to get him out first to start the final stage.
A poor next stop during that stage set him back, and he was working his way back into contention when, for the second time, he incurred a pit road penalty that took him out of contention. He finished 20th.
NUTS & BOLTS
Hendrick drivers led 229 of the 400 laps with Larson pacing 93, Berry 10 and pole-sitter Alex Bowman 9. ... Former NFL tight end Vernon Davis, who finished his career with the Washington Commanders, was the honorary pace car driver.
The second of three straight short track events comes next Sunday night on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway.
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Updated April 2, 2023