Long: It’s advantage Larson after Texas ... but for how long?
FORT WORTH, Texas — Chris Gabehart had a point to make.
After the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had been loaded into the team’s hauler, Denny Hamlin’s crew chief made his thoughts clear on the advantage Kyle Larson’s team had winning Sunday’s race and securing the first spot in next month’s championship race.
“Quote it and write it down,” Gabehart told NBC Sports at Texas Motor Speedway. “It is a huge advantage. They are the best race team of the year, statistically. We are a step behind them. Kyle Larson is the most talented race car driver I have ever been on this planet to see. That’s a fact.”
“Look at what (Larson) is doing across any type of discipline on any given week. He’s with a fantastic race team. (Crew chief Cliff Daniels) is doing a great job. He’s prepared his guys for it. Yeah, it’s an advantage. We’ve experienced a version of that the last couple of rounds. They’ve got it now.
“But that doesn’t mean we’re going to quit. That doesn’t mean we’re going to hand them the trophy. But, absolutely, it’s an advantage.”
One Gabehart can use to motivate his team.
Or get a message across elsewhere.
“There’s a reason I told you to quote it and write it down,” Gabehart said with a smile. “With that advantage, there is pressure. That’s the truth. They’ve got a huge advantage over the next two weeks. They don’t hand out the trophy out until after 312 laps at Phoenix. Hopefully, we’re there to race them for it.”
Sunday gave the winningest Cup team this season - Larson earned his eighth victory of the year - the biggest advantage going into the Nov. 7 title race at Phoenix Raceway.
Team Penske’s Todd Gordon knows how significant it can be. But the crew chief for Ryan Blaney also knows that the advantage is not absolute in this case.
Gordon was Joey Logano’s crew chief when they won the 2018 playoff race at Martinsville Speedway to become the first team to earn a spot in that year’s championship race. Logano won the the title that year. It’s the last time a driver who won the first race in the Round of 8 went on to win the crown.
Gordon told NBC Sports that having those extra weeks to prepare for the championship race while fellow playoff contenders raced to secure a spot was “huge for us.”
That’s why Gordon called Sunday’s race “the most important race. You win this one, (Larson’s team) has nothing to worry about at Kansas, nothing to worry about at Martinsville. … They can work on what they need to do at Phoenix. That can become the team’s priority.”
That can mean deeper dives on race strategy, race preparation and car preparation. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but every little bit can help.
The other seven playoff teams must focus on the Oct. 24 race at Kansas. For those who don’t secure a title spot there, they have one final chance to do so Oct. 31 at Martinsville.
Gordon noted that there is a key difference in his situation with Logano in 2018 and what Larson and Daniels have this year.
In 2018, Logano was the only remaining driver from Team Penske in the playoffs when he secured his spot in the title race, which was held at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“As soon as we won, the whole shop focused everything, all Team Penske went to Homestead,” Gordon said.
That isn’t a luxury for Hendrick Motorsports.
The organization seeks to get reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott back to the championship race. Elliott is eight points behind Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot. While Elliott has two wins this year, both were on road courses. His last win on an oval was last year’s championship race at Phoenix.
Daniels noted after Sunday’s race at Texas how much of a priority it is to get Elliott in the title event.
“I think as a company, now we’ve got to put our focus on making sure we get (Elliott) to Phoenix, as well, but our job is still going to go win races every week, if we can, and that’s our goal,” Daniels said.
Daniels also noted the advantage his team would have over the other three title teams.
Phoenix will mark the first time in more than two months that Cup teams will practice and qualify before the race. Daniels said that means the haulers with the team cars will have to leave each shop a couple of days earlier than normal. That’s fewer days to work on those cars before they are transported.
“So, now we are very fortunate that we have a little bit more time just to really plan out the way the next three weeks can go with emphasis on Phoenix - where if you’re not locked in right away, you’re kind of giving everything you can for that week,” he said.
Now that it’s all been said, we’ll see how it plays out in the coming weeks.