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Everyone in the NASCAR garage agrees that Kyle Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels are one of the best duos in the business. The statistics don’t lie. The No. 5 leader is so successful at his job not only because he’s good at overseeing race-day operations but also because he excels at managing the emotions of his driver, which can sometimes go south when things aren’t going right. He’s done it multiple times in the past. 

On Sunday at Homestead, that calming presence momentarily disappeared, and a palpable tension briefly developed between the pair over the team radio. A short time later, the Hendrick Motorsports driver of that No. 5 car made an egregious mistake, running into the pit road barrels, which ended his day. 

Were the two events connected?

Kyle Larson received motivational speech from Cliff Daniels in past 

The history books will show Kyle Larson and Cliff Daniels won a lot of races and at least one championship together. While the latter is considered one of the best at the technical side — car setup and on-the-fly adjustments — he’s also respected for his mental game and ability to help his driver manage the up-and-down emotions of a race. It’s been on display multiple times since Larson joined HMS in 2021. 

The most memorable moment occurred in the 2022 Coca-Cola 600. 

Larson struggled all weekend. It began with a wreck in practice that prevented him from qualifying and sent him to the back of the field to start the race. When the green flag dropped, the No. 5 endured repeated setbacks in the first half of the race, which prompted the driver to tell his crew chief over the radio that it was “the worst race of my life.” 

Daniels offered an epic response.

“We went from the back to the front more times than I can count,” he told his driver. “We hit the wall. We spun out. We’ve literally caught on fire. We were also the most penalized team on pit road in this half.

“All that being said, in the second half already we’re gonna be starting way better than we started the first half. We gotta go execute right now. So, I don’t really know what the hell you’re worried about. But I’m fine, the team’s fine. Everybody down here’s nodding their head. They’re giving a thumbs-up. So, let’s go.”

“Yup,” Larson responded. “I’m fine. I’m ready.”

He rebounded and finished ninth.

Larson and Daniels get confrontational during Homestead race

Kyle Larson started fifth at Homestead on Sunday but, as expected, made his way forward. With four laps remaining in Stage 1, the winner of last year’s race ran up front and held an almost three-second lead over Brad Keselowski when the caution came out. There wasn’t another green-flag lap run, and he won the stage. 

The second stage was much of the same as the 2021 champion surged to another two-plus-second lead as the laps dwindled. However, the handling of the HMS car began to fade away. So did the lead. 

Both Ryan Blaney and Larson’s teammate, William Byron, passed the No. 5 in the stage’s waning laps. He finished third and talked about the ending over the team radio. 

“I’m fine. Mi amigo raced the s*** out of us,” Larson said, referring to Daniel Suarez battling him and trying to avoid going a lap down. 

“Well, you had him clear the first time,” Daniels noted. “Then you let him go again. So I don’t know that I agree with all that. And then we just hurt our tires. Do you want me to work on the car or no?”

“Uh. I don’t know. I’m not really sure,” the driver answered. “I’m still tight up top. I didn’t honestly feel that bad around the middle of the bottom. I just ran hard for four or five laps, and it never came back.” 

There was then an awkward radio silence for 25 seconds.

“You tell me. Tell me if you want something with the car,” the crew chief tersely proposed.

“I said I don’t know,” an unsure Larson responded. “I think we just need to calm down and regroup.” 

Larson makes unforced error, hits barrels on pit road

Larson appeared to have regrouped in that final stage and trailed Blaney for the lead with 55 laps to go when the two made their way toward pit road for the day’s final stop. Unfortunately for the HMS pilot, he grossly miscalculated his pit road entry speed and delivered a glancing blow into the right rear of the No. 12 car before slamming into the sand-filled barrels protecting the wall.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t expect him to slow down that much,” Larson said a few seconds later over the team radio. 

Based on numerous replays, it didn’t appear that the Penske driver did anything out of the ordinary coming down pit road. The HMS driver just overcooked it and made an egregious mistake that ended his day. 

Everyone agrees that Larson only knows one speed: full speed. Unsurprisingly, some of his supporters suggested on social media that is what he was trying to do.

But it’s also not hard to believe that that type of unforced error was connected to his tension-filled conflict with Daniels. The driver, who is normally on the receiving end of encouraging words from the team leader, was instead being criticized for his decision-making and, at that moment, was doing everything he could to make up for that earlier miscue and please his crew chief. 

It’s likely no one will ever know the answer. The only thing that is known is that Larson and Daniels had a disagreement, and it will be interesting to see how they rebound in the next couple of races as they try to collect their second championship together. If that happens, the contentious conversation at Homestead will just be viewed as another bump on the road.

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