MADISON, Ill. — Kyle Larson started in the back and went nowhere fast.
The 2021 NASCAR Cup champion began Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway in 22nd and dropped like a rock.
By Lap 26 — which was more than two hours after the start of the race due to a lightning delay — Larson was being passed for 29th by Carson Hocevar, a driver making his first career Cup start.
However, by 8:30 p.m. Sunday night, Larson was talking about “one of the most proud top fives I’ve probably had in my career.”
The Hendrick Motorsports driver managed to place fourth, surviving five cautions and two red flag periods in the final 44 laps, to finish behind race winner Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.
It’s his third top five in a seven-race stretch.
In the other four races, he failed to finish better than 20th.
“They just plugged away at it, got some more grip in the areas I needed,” Larson said of the adjustments that helped stabilize his car’s performance. “I thought we had a good long-run car there once we got a handle on things and then they made a great call to gain a lot of track position and really kind of race it out from then on.”
The call came during a pit stop with less than 66 laps to go.
After entering the pits in ninth, crew chief Cliff Daniels called for a two-tire change instead of four.
As a result, Larson left pit road first and was more than six car lengths ahead of the second-place car of Hamlin.
Larson wouldn’t keep the lead on the restart, losing it to eventual race winner Busch.
“When I restarted on two tires I just didn’t know what to expect, I hadn’t been up there all day,” Larson said. “I didn’t know how hard people could run and just got kind of caught off guard and beat by Kyle in the first restart there.”
Larson indicated it was possible he could have finished better, but made conscious decisions during the marathon of restarts to keep from making a mistake on a track where it’s hard to pass.
“[There were] some other moments on a lot of restarts where I thought I could just side draft down the backstretch and get racing in (Turns) 3 and 4,” Larson said. “But wanted to race them clean and had a much better day going in than I thought I would, so I didn’t want to do anything stupid.”
Daniels, Larson’s crew chief since 2021, admitted that his driver had “every reason, every right to yell at me and throw a fit” when he was slogging away in the back of the pack, “but he didn’t.”
Daniel wasn’t surprised his strategy decision for two tires paid off with Larson’s sixth top five and top 10 through 15 races.
“No, I’m surprised so many did four [tires],” Daniels told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a look of slight confusion crossing his face. “And I bet if you asked a lot of them if they could do it over again, they would probably do it, they will probably do two [tires].”
The only other team that took two tires and restarted in the top 10 along with Larson was Michael McDowell in the No. 34 car.
Daniels then referenced the late stages of the inaugural Cup race at the 1.25-mile track in 2022, which was won by Joey Logano.
“If you watch the race from last year, the entire top six did two [tires],” Daniels said. “With 60 to go, which is exactly what I did. So it was very by the book.”
While Larson was proud of the result the No. 5 team produced, Daniels said he was more proud of his team than “than I am myself.”
“I’m still sad at myself for how far off we started,” Daniels said. “Just thinking through all the things that we need to do to be better in that category. But again, the guys at the shop, all these guys on the road are building fast cars, because once we get the handling close, the car just comes to life.”