NASCAR Barometer:  Kyle Larson Captures First Win of 2023

NASCAR Barometer: Kyle Larson Captures First Win of 2023

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Sunday's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway was a Hendrick Motorsports kind of day. The teammates combined to lead 228 of the 400 laps raced with William Byron dominating the afternoon with 117 circuits out front. However, one final pit stop enabled Kyle Larson to grab the track position he needed to get ahead of the No. 24 and avoid any late race trouble to score his first victory of the season. Larson's win was also backed by an impressive run from Josh Berry, who used ambitious pit calls to overcome an early spin and capitalize on track position, leaving him to finish second in his best performance in the series so far. Alex Bowman's eighth-place finish made it three Hendrick cars in the top 10, while Byron was the one left wanting after late contact sent him spinning out of contention. 

Larson's win will only serve to boost his prospects this week as the series faces another short-track test at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Track. Larson is a veteran dirt racer that would have been a favorite this week anyway, but this particular race coming directly after his second career victory at Richmond is likely to make him the favorite to join Byron as a multiple-race winner this season by winning two weeks in a row. Kyle Busch won last year's dirt race, the second time the unique configuration has appeared on the calendar. Joey Logano won the inaugural event. 

UPGRADE

Kyle Larson – A late

Sunday's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway was a Hendrick Motorsports kind of day. The teammates combined to lead 228 of the 400 laps raced with William Byron dominating the afternoon with 117 circuits out front. However, one final pit stop enabled Kyle Larson to grab the track position he needed to get ahead of the No. 24 and avoid any late race trouble to score his first victory of the season. Larson's win was also backed by an impressive run from Josh Berry, who used ambitious pit calls to overcome an early spin and capitalize on track position, leaving him to finish second in his best performance in the series so far. Alex Bowman's eighth-place finish made it three Hendrick cars in the top 10, while Byron was the one left wanting after late contact sent him spinning out of contention. 

Larson's win will only serve to boost his prospects this week as the series faces another short-track test at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Track. Larson is a veteran dirt racer that would have been a favorite this week anyway, but this particular race coming directly after his second career victory at Richmond is likely to make him the favorite to join Byron as a multiple-race winner this season by winning two weeks in a row. Kyle Busch won last year's dirt race, the second time the unique configuration has appeared on the calendar. Joey Logano won the inaugural event. 

UPGRADE

Kyle Larson – A late caution period and a trip down pit road gave Larson the opportunity he needed to gain track position and drive into the lead to win Sunday's Toyota Owners 400. It was Larson's first victory of 2023 and came on a day that teammate William Byron dominated, which turned the script on earlier races where Larson dominated but lost to Byron. It was Larson's third top-five finish of the season and his second win at Richmond. The dominant afternoon from the Hendrick teammates showed that the organization continues to be the class of the Cup Series field this season, and other teams in the garage know they have work to do to close that gap. Larson should be a favorite again this week. He started from pole in this race in 2021 and also led 27 laps to finish fourth in 2022.

Ross Chastain - The consistently quick pace of Chastain and his No. 1 team continue to make them a top choice for fantasy rosters each week and maybe even series champions, too. On Sunday Chastain and company delivered yet another top-five finish, their third of the season and second in as many races. Chastain started fourth after qualifying was canceled and he went on to lead 16 laps, picking up stage points in the second segment, too. It was another confident race that fantasy players are coming to rely upon each and every week. The No. 1 made it all the way to the final four last season and is staking a claim on repeating that type of season again in 2023, and Chastain is on the verge of the race win that would unlock the first door to that playoff repeat. A true test awaits him at Bristol this week, though. Chastain has failed to finish both races on the dirt surface, but his current momentum may help him buck that trend.

 Ty Gibbs - Another top-10 finish, his third of the season, demonstrates improvement each week as Gibbs works through his rookie season in the Cup Series. Sunday's ninth-place finish was earned by consistently running among the top 10 all race distance, even adding stage points in the second segment. Gibbs delivered a mistake-free afternoon from 14th on the starting grid, moving him to 20th in the championship standings with three consecutive ninth-place finishes. The run of good form is showing that Gibbs is getting his bearings with the step up in competition and his consistency around the top 10 has been impressive for a rookie. The learning curve in this series is a steep one, but Gibbs is proving once again he can climb quickly. He faces an entirely new challenge this week on the dirt at Bristol, but his productive approach regardless of track should help him navigate this race's unique nature.

William Byron - Byron held off teammate Kyle Larson for the opening stage victory Sunday at Richmond to kick off a dominant afternoon. The teammates both started inside the top 10 after weather canceled qualifying, but it was Byron that held the advantage in the first segment. Lost track position ultimately ruined Byron's chances of winning as he became a victim in the final restarts when he was hit from behind and spun into the wall. His 117 laps led on the afternoon only ended up amounting to a 24th-place finish in a very unrepresentative result. Fantasy players should expect Byron to continue his sensational pace and overcome Sunday's misfortune, though. His average finish from the two prior Bristol dirt races is 12.0 with his best result coming in the inaugural race when he finished sixth. He also started in the top 10 that afternoon.

Denny Hamlin – Slightly fresher tires and an inspired drive led Hamlin to the first stage victory of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing. The Richmond ace also had to overcome a pit road speeding penalty in order to get back to the front, but once there he was able to overtake Christopher Bell for the lead, pulling ahead to the segment win as he positioned himself for the win. That work imploded during the final round of pit stops, though. After losing some time on track on old tires Hamlin headed for pit road only to pick up a second speeding penalty that sent him to the back of the field. When all was said and done Hamlin finished the afternoon in 20th position, failing to capitalize on a fast car. He needs to quickly put Sunday behind him and keep aiming for that first victory of the season. Last spring's Bristol race ended early with an engine failure, but Hamlin did start on the front row and finish third in 2021's edition of the race.

DOWNGRADE

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The year started perfectly for Stenhouse with a Daytona 500 victory. The next few races weren't as good and only at the road course in Austin did Stenhouse score his second top-10 of the season. That result could have been a boost but gremlins impacted his afternoon at Richmond, too. The No. 47 smacked the outside wall early in the running and then was forced behind the wall with a fluid leak under the competition caution. With just one other top-15 finish aside from the Daytona 500 win and COTA top-10 this team has a lot of work to do the rest of this season to make an impact in the playoffs. Stenhouse would typically be a top choice on the dirt at Bristol, but his current momentum leaves a lot to be desired. He was the runner up in the inaugural dirt race but finished a lowly 29th last season.

Ryan Blaney – If it weren't for bad luck Ryan Blaney might have no luck at all. His speed since last season has been unquestionable, but incorrect calls on pit road and unfortunate incidents on track have plagued him the past few seasons. That trend continued again Sunday at Richmond when under green flag pit stops he left before the crew was able to remove a wedge wrench and he was forced into an extra stop to remove the equipment. The afternoon was a frustrating one with the team only salvaging a 26th-place finish, their second consecutive race finishing outside of the top 20. Persistent problems continue to hamper the No. 12 team, but Blaney does have two top-10s in the two Bristol dirt races. He finished eighth the first time out and then backed it up with a fifth-place finish last season and will be seeking redemption this week.

Austin Dillon – A weak finish at Richmond extended Dillon's challenges in the early 2023 season. While teammate Kyle Busch already has a win, and has contended for more, Dillon has just one top-10 finish and only three top-20s. Sunday's 25th-place outing at Richmond was another disappointment at a track Dillon should have been capable of at least a top-15. The team is struggling to get off the mark so far in 2023 and missing chances to reverse the trend are likely to haunt them later in the season with the pressure to turn things around growing each week the slump continues. Dillon will be feeling the pressure again this week at Bristol where his average finish from two prior dirt races is 26th. Another result in that range won't cut it for this team that has playoff aspirations. Fantasy players may want to take a wait-and-see approach until Dillon and his No. 3 team can turn their fortunes for the better.

Austin Cindric - One week after scoring his second top-10 of the season Cindric stumbled at Richmond. The cancelation of qualifying put Cindric in the enviable position of starting inside the top 10 at a track that heavily favors track position. The team never had the pace to stay there once the green flag waved, though. Cindric fell backward through the field and wasn't even capable of being among the top 15 cars at the end of the first stage. By the time the full race distance was complete Cindric was a lap down in 28th position. The result was his fourth finish of the year worse than 20th and leaves him 15th in the standings and moving backward. The team is aiming for a spot in the playoffs this fall, but races like Sunday's will not help them get there. A solid top-15 result would have been a satisfying effort ahead of this week's tricky trip to Bristol, and the team just doesn't have the consistent pace they need right now.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Josh Berry – A snowboarding injury to Chase Elliott brought Berry to the driver's seat of the No. 9 machine, and he repaid the team's faith in him with a runner-up finish Sunday at Richmond. The finish was Berry's best result since taking over the machine and came after recovering from a spin earlier in the race. In fact, Berry and crew chief Tom Gray used ambitious pit strategy to recover ground lost from the spin, and a well-timed caution near the end turned that ambition into reality with a chance to get back on strategy with fresh tires for the final laps. Berry then turned in two great restarts, enabling him to hold off the charging pack behind him to seal the deal on his best finish in the series so far and his second top-10 since starting his fill-in role at Las Vegas. Berry's efforts are a becoming a successful audition for a full-time opportunity at the Cup level.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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