Smith: What Kyle Larson’s title win reminds us about modern-day NASCAR
There’s no disputing Kyle Larson’s championship, but every one of his steps taken toward his 2021 title serve as reminders of a few NASCAR truisms in the modern era:
It’s a specialist’s world (unless you’re Kyle Larson)
In an era of NASCAR dominated by a playoff format where wins deliver automatic berths, reigned-in development efforts and split horsepower, most organizations are forced to choose a specialty. Whether that’s 550-horsepower tracks, 750-horsepower tracks, road courses or drafting tracks depends on a variety of factors, but a commonality is that it’s becoming increasingly more impossible to act as a generalist in a world of specialists.
Unless, of course, you’re Kyle Larson. His Hendrick Motorsports team wraps the 2021 season as the fastest on 550-horsepower tracks and second fastest on both 750-horsepower tracks and road courses. Likewise, Larson displayed a versatility we haven’t seen since NASCAR divided its tracks with different rules packages in 2019. He ranked first in Production in Equal Equipment Rating across 750-horsepower ovals and road courses while also topping the field on 550-horsepower tracks.
But Larson might be the exception to NASCAR’s new rule, with the final race and entire season breaking in his every favor. If not for David Starr’s exploding brake rotor, we likely wouldn’t be celebrating Larson as stock car racing’s newest champion. And even still, a season for the ages took place in a year with a restriction on research and parts development and regulated wind tunnel and simulation time. His team’s engine advantage, created with the enabling of extra time for development and submission following Hendrick’s merger with ECR in October 2020, was allowed to go unchallenged by Ford or Toyota.
Even with a mechanical advantage, the generalist approach required a generational talent — the best driver Tony Stewart has ever seen, no less — in order to do the job. As the dazzling driving offered by Larson isn’t easily emulated, it’s best to assume a specialty going forward into the Next Gen era, which will contain an identical playoff format and different aero and horsepower rules based on the style of track.
Equipment shapes the narrative but doesn’t make the man
There was a poignancy to Larson clinching a championship for a rival team on Chip Ganassi’s last day in NASCAR.
It was Ganassi’s team that signed Larson to a development contract in 2012, but it was also Chip Ganassi Racing that somehow failed to build around the future champion. Prior to his 2020 suspension and subsequent termination, Larson’s departure via free agency was believed to be a foregone conclusion.
Had CGR properly fashioned its cars into vessels maximizing Larson’s abilities, it’s likely Sunday’s race wouldn’t have been Ganassi’s final one as a Cup Series team owner. And despite the difference in wins — Larson won more races in 2021 than he did across his other seven years in the Cup Series combined — the indicators of the driver’s stardom were always present.
He was an advanced stats darling as early as his first year in the Cup Series, when he became the youngest driver to ever rank inside the top three for surplus passing value. He pressed forward with CGR, becoming one of the sport’s top restarters despite a car that rarely ranked as one of the fastest in the sport:
Concluding his championship season as a top-two passer and restarter, Larson is virtually the same driver he was while at CGR. He’s who analytics always thought he was, made abundantly clear by his shift to a team with the wherewithal for turning pure ability into tangible success.
Auto racing is a team sport disguised as an individual endeavor
Based upon the sky-high standards Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels created for themselves over the course of the year, Sunday’s title-clincher was a relatively mediocre performance.
The driver fared as the least efficient passer among the Championship 4, per his adjusted pass efficiency. He also totaled just 32 passes with over one-third of them coming outside the top 15. By Daniels’ admission, the car was “terrible” at its lowest point and demanded continual adjustments before all appeared lost in advance of the final caution.
That’s when the team’s pit crew flipped the script. An 11.8-second stop catapulted Larson from fourth to first, which allowed the driver to tap into his biggest statistical strength as a restarter — launching from the front row, which he’s done on nearly 40% of all restart attempts this year — for a final 24-lap dash to the finish.
Make no mistake, the most productive driver in the series this year is also its champion, but the go-ahead pass for the win emerged from the final pit stop of the five lug nut era. It was a reminder that, in most forms of auto racing including NASCAR, a driver’s success is based on many components, and in this case, it was a pit crew pulling off one of the fastest four-tire stops of the last three seasons.
Larson chose his current home well, becoming the first champion since Kevin Harvick in 2014 to win a title in his first year with a team. But Hendrick Motorsports properly positioned itself for the star it signed, leaving no rock unturned in what became a standout among all other championship seasons.