LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 03: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 03, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 03: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 03, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Hendrick Motorsports drivers have found a new playground in Sin City

When you think about particular race tracks where Hendrick Motorsports drivers have dominated, Martinsville and Dover immediately come to mind.

Starting with Jeff Gordon’s sweep of the Martinsville races in 2003, Hendrick drivers owned the 0.526-mile paper-clip-shaped track for seven years. Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson combined to win 10 of 13 races during a stretch that ended with Denny Hamlin’s victory in the fall race of 2009.

From the fall race of 2006 through the spring race of 2009, Johnson won five of six NASCAR Cup Series events at Martinsville. Gordon and Johnson totaled nine career victories each at the historic short track.

Starting with a sweep during his rookie season in 2002, Johnson almost single-handedly turned Dover Motor Speedway into a Hendrick sandbox. He won at the high-banked one-mile concrete track a record 11 times and took his last checkered flag in the Cup Series there in 2017.

It’s true that current Hendrick drivers have won four of the last eight races at Dover and four of the last seven at Martinsville, but it’s also undeniable that the organization has staked its claim to a new playground.

Recent performances argue convincingly that Hendrick’s current best track is Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Consider the facts: Hendrick drivers have won the last three events at Las Vegas. Recent DAYTONA 500 champion William Byron triumphed in the first Vegas race of 2023. Kyle Larson has claimed the trophy in the last two events in Sin City, including Sunday’s nail-biter over hard-charging Tyler Reddick.

In each of the last three races, the winner also has swept the first two stages of the event and led the most laps.

Byron’s victory in 2023 led a podium sweep for Hendrick, with Larson and Alex Bowman finishing second and third, respectively. In Sunday’s race, Larson led 181 of 267 laps. The victory was his third at the track, tied for most among full-time active Cup drivers.

The track record holder? None other than Johnson with four wins.

With Larson also winning at Vegas in 2021 and Bowman in 2022, team owner Rick Hendrick can boast five victories in the last seven Cup events at the intermediate track.

Larson told the NASCAR Wire Service before Sunday’s race that, since signing with HMS in 2021, his setups for Las Vegas tend to minimize the ill effects of the pronounced bumps in Turns 1 and 2. Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, contended that the versatile talents of his driver have more to do with his success at Las Vegas.

Larson, of course, is a mega-star in the world of dirt-track racing, where searching for different lines over the course of an event is of paramount importance.

“I would argue he is so good at tracks with a lot of character,” Daniels said. “That’s a testament to the different types of cars that he drives all the time. He can adapt to so many different things…

“He’s so good at moving the different lanes and how the car reacts in those different situations. I would argue we haven’t had the outright best car every time that we’ve won.”

Larson’s victory on Sunday was impressive, but so was Byron’s 10th-place run.

Byron had a car capable of leading the race and perhaps challenging Larson for the victory. However, on a track buffeted by wind gusts of up to 50 mph, a large trash bag blown across the racing surface attached to the nose of Byron’s car and covered the grille on the No. 24 Camaro, blocking the airflow to the engine compartment.

Byron’s water temperature skyrocketed to 350 degrees, cutting horsepower and endangering the life of the engine.

On Monday, during an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Rudy Fugle, Byron’s crew chief, revealed the rest of the story.

“I’m pretty positive that (the trash bag) had a beer can in it, because that beer can got stuck in our air filter,” Fugle told the SiriusXM audience. “After the race, there was a silver bullet in our air filter somehow.”

Byron lost a lap during an unscheduled pit stop to remove the trash bag, but he rallied to finish 10th—emblematic of both the team’s resilience and its ability to excel.

As with Martinsville and Dover, Hendrick drivers expect to dominate at Las Vegas, and their expectations seem to be self-fulfilling.

Needless to say, on Oct. 20, during the NASCAR Cup Playoffs, they’ll be eager to return to their new playground in the Mojave Desert—a massive sandbox indeed.

— NASCAR Wire Service —