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Hendrick Motorsports’ start to season shows they ‘have come to play’

Kyle Larson wins the NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Hendrick Motorsports, his first victory since his return to the series.

After struggling to record strong finishes on 1.5-mile tracks last season, Hendrick Motorsports has rebounded to win the first two races on such tracks this year.

“Certainly, the Hendrick guys have come to play,” Kyle Busch said after finishing third to Kyle Larson on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Success on 1.5-mile tracks remains pivotal despite the addition of several road course races this season. Three of the last seven races in the Cup playoffs are at 1.5-mile tracks. Two of those playoff races are in the penultimate round. A win in those races can advance a driver to the title race.

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Brad Keselowski, who finished second to Larson on Sunday, isn’t surprised by Hendrick’s resurgence.

“I think there’s no secret that the Chevys have had a number of down years,” Keselowski said. “With that comes adjustments. The Chevy camp made some big adjustments.

“I think last year or maybe the year before last with the body on the car, they got better. Made a big adjustment this year with the engines, probably took a step up. Across the board, they look pretty strong. Those are some significant upgrades, and they’re making the most of them.

Larson’s victory came a week after William Byron won at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

It’s a significant turnaround for Hendrick Motorsports from last season. Consider:

  • Hendrick Motorsports ranked fourth among organizations in the 10 races on 1.5-mile tracks after the sport resumed in May from the COVID-19 pause.
  • Joe Gibbs Racing (three wins), Team Penske (two) and Stewart-Haas Racing (two) each had more wins in those 10 races last year than Hendrick (one).
  • Hendrick also ranked behind those teams in top fives and top 10s in those races a year ago. Joe Gibbs Racing had nearly three times as many top fives as Hendrick’s six. JGR also had nearly twice as many top 10s as Hendrick’s 13.

“I think you build momentum slowly in this sport,” car owner Rick Hendrick said.

In Sunday’s race, Hendrick drivers showed their speed. Larson ranked first in the the number of fastest laps. Teammate William Byron ranked second. Hendrick’s Chase Elliott was fourth in that category.

“We knew it was going to take a lot of prep work to get here,” crew chief Cliff Daniels said after Larson’s win. “We’ve done that every week. Kyle is in the shop three days a week just poring through notes with us, looking at video, looking at data.

“Our guys have done a nice job to help get him prepared, and likewise he’s done a nice job of just giving us sensations he needs to feel, things he’s felt in the past and how he would like to car to respond in certain situations.”

Winning the first two races does not mean Hendrick will be the dominant organization. Team Penske was strong at Las Vegas. Keselowski finished second, Ryan Blaney was fifth and Joey Logano was ninth. Keselowski ranked second in green flag speed in Sunday’s race, while Blaney was third.

“For whatever reason, we’ve just always been really good here at Team Penske,” Keselowski said. “This year was no exception.”

Joe Gibbs Racing had all four of its cars finish in the top 10 with Busch third, Denny Hamlin fourth, Martin Truex Jr. sixth and Christopher Bell seventh. This marked the fourth time in the last six races on 1.5-mile tracks that JGR had two drivers place in the top five. Even so, work remains.

“These tracks are really tough, it’s a real big guessing game on what cars to bring and what kind of approach to take,” Truex said. “You kind of get guessing on a lot of different things – the weather, the wind and all this kind of stuff.

“Overall, I think our cars were decent. We definitely have to find some more speed to run with some of those guys. I would say for us, we were probably a little bit off from where we were last weekend. Definitely some stuff to build on for all of us across the board.”