Perfect 10: Kyle Larson caps off comeback with NASCAR Cup Series title

Larson capped off his comeback season with not only his first win at Phoenix but the missing accolade of a NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Proving that auto racing is a team sport that goes beyond the man in the driver’s seat, Kyle Larson and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team ended a comeback season for the ages on Sunday afternoon at Phoenix Raceway.

A flawless pit stop under caution with 27 laps remaining (11.8 seconds for a four-tire service) the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship race put Larson in front for the final stretch of the season. He’d spend the final circuit holding off a furious rally from Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 Toyota to win his 10th race of the season and the Cup Series title.

Larson, a winner of countless prestigious races across multiple levels of motorsports, earns his first career championship trophy hoist after he missed most of the 2020 season following his firing from Chip Ganassi Racing for using a racial slur during a streamed iRacing event. After months of a continuing effort to make amends off the track, Larson would go on to win the trust of the esteemed HMS boss Rick Hendrick. who put Larson in the resurrected No. 5 branding that Terry Labonte previously drove to Cup title in 1996.

This championship is the 14th on the premier Cup level for Hendrick and second in a row after Chase Elliott won it last year. Larson is also the first driver in Cup Series history to win 10 races since fellow HMS champion, Jimmie Johnson, did so en route to his second of five consecutive trophies in 2007. The No. 5 group previously set the record for most laps led in a single season, ending the year with 2,581 laps at the front after leading a race-best 107 on Sunday. Yet another HMS legend, Jeff Gordon, previously held the record during his fourth and final championship trek in 2001.

Larson was one of four contenders for the 2021 title entering the season finale at Phoenix, which hosted the season finale for the second straight season. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Truex and Denny Hamlin finished second and third respectively while Elliott rounded out the top five. Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford was the best non-playoff finisher in fourth.

For full results, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Alex Bowman wins at Martinsville as Championship 4 is set

Martinsville’s chaos stages a championship battle between Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing at NASCAR’s 2021 finale next weekend.

Hendrick Motorsports won Martinsville’s battle. But Joe Gibbs Racing has a chance to win Phoenix’s war.

Alex Bowman of the No. 48 HMS Chevrolet crashed the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff party at Martinsville Speedway’s Xfinity 500 on Sunday afternoon. Bowman’s fourth victory of the season came with a hint of controversy, as his winning move made contact with Denny Hamlin, sending the latter’s No. 11 Gibbs Toyota spinning into the wall with seven circuits remaining in the 50-lap event. The late incident required a two-lap overtime finish, which saw Bowman hold off a furious push from Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, each of whom needed to win to advance to the final four.

Hamlin nonetheless clinched a spot in the Cup Series’ Championship 4, an illustrious quartet that will race for a title at Phoenix Raceway in next Sunday’s season finale (3 p.m. ET, NBC). He’ll be joined by JGR teammate and 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr., who overcame late damage to his No. 19 Toyota to finish fourth and clinch his own spot.

HMS Chevrolets account for the rest of the group: defending series champion Chase Elliott finished 16th after contact with Keselowski but made it in through victories over the first two race stages. Kyle Larson (14th) had already clinched his Phoenix ticket with wins at the first two Round of 8 races at Texas and Kansas.

Hamlin was visibly displeased with Bowman, menacingly driving up to him as the No. 48 engaged in its victory burnout. He later called Bowman a “hack” in his postrace interview with NBC Sports.

The eliminated Busch and Keselowski finished second and third respectively while another Hendrick Chevy, the No. 24 of William Byron, rounded out the top five. Busch finished three points short of advancement Keselowski’s Team Penske teammates Joey Logano (10th) and Ryan Blaney (11th) likewise saw their championship dreams end.

The Greatest Showman

Bowman was eliminated after the Round of 12, as his postseason output has been tough to bear. Entering Sunday’s event, Bowman had only one top-five finish over the first eight playoff races (fifth at Bristol) and led only a single lap in that span,

This Martinsville triumph allowed him to cap off his first season piloting the legendary No. 48 car on the right note. Behind the wheel of the ride Jimmie Johnson drove to seven Cup Series titles, Bowman has earned career-bests in nearly every major stat category, primarily his aforementioned win total (he had two wins entering the 2021 season).

“These last couple of months have been painful. It’s been so frustrating,” Bowman admitted. “Honestly, our teammates have kicked our butts for quite a while now. I think Greg and myself have both been pretty down and frustrated…We weren’t doing things any differently. We weren’t approaching weekends differently. We just have been off.”

“To come to a place that was probably our worst place when we started together, have such a good day, get another win, it feels great,” he continued. “Obviously, four wins this year feels great. Wish we were in the Round of 4. We just need to figure out consistency and this team will be something really, really special.”

Bowman ran behind his teammates over the first 130-lap stages, finishing in the runner-up spot to Elliott in the latter. He lingered near the front during the third stage, the only delay coming on a slow pit stop when the leaders pitted at lap 380 during a caution induced by Daniel Suarez’s spin. The No. 48 quickly worked its way back up and competed with Hamlin for the win over the final stages.

Bowman continued to insist that the contact with Hamlin was nothing intentional during his postrace availability.

“I hate that we got into the 11,” Bowman said. “I just got underneath him and spun him out. I’d be mad, too. I get it. But he’s been on the other side of that enough to understand.”

“I understand why he’s mad. I’d be mad, too. I drove off into the corner, got loose, spun him out. At the same time, I didn’t do it on purpose. If I did, I’d tell you. That’s part of it.”

Team FedEx Fed Up

The incident with Bowman capped off an eventful afternoon for Hamlin: the No. 11 had to start from the rear after multiple inspection failures and was denied points on the first stage after he was caught speeding on pit road. He would rally back to take the lead at lap 389 from his teammate Truex and managed to keep it when the leaders pitted 56 circuits later during a caution for Austin Dillon’s encounter with the wall.

Alas for Hamlin, a third win was not to be but he managed to build a points cushion sizable enough to push him into the Championship 4 for the third straight season. But his postrace comments and display have stolen the headlines as the series moves on to the desert.

“He’s just a hack. Just an absolute hack,” Hamlin said of Bowman in the publicized interview with NBC. “He gets his (butt) kicked by his teammates every week. He’s (expletive) terrible. He’s just terrible. He sees one opportunity, he takes it.”

“We had a good, clean race. I moved up as high as I could on the racetrack to give him all the room I could, he still can’t drive.”

Yet another championship opportunity awaits Hamlin at Phoenix, as a Cup Series title hoist is perhaps the one thing missing from his NASCAR career. His 46 wins are second-most in Cup Series history amongst drivers without a championship (behind only Junior Johnson’s 50).

Martin’s Ville

Hamlin won’t be alone as he returns to the championship circuit, as he’s joined by Truex after a gutsy run in the No. 19. The Mayetta, NJ native ran near the front for most of the afternoon but went through an absolute rollercoaster over the last 150 laps.

Truex’s Camry slightly overheated before he took the lead from Dillon at lap 386. After losing the top spot to Hamlin, he held a consistent lead on the battle for fourth but contact with Byron damaged his left front corner. Further contact with Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch shot him up the track at lap 471, but a surplus of lead lap cars prevented him from coming to pit road. His damaged No. 19 managed to maintain a spot in the top five, giving him just enough points to send Keselowski and Kyle Busch home.

“There’s not a whole lot you can do other than drive,” Truex said of his approach to the final portions. “Thinking about it, worrying about it doesn’t do you any good. You just got to try to go, hit your marks, get the most out of your race car. Luckily, we were able to do that.”

Up Next

The Cup Series’ season finale returns to Phoenix for the second consecutive season after nearly two decades at Homestead-Miami. Elliott led 153 laps after starting from the back to capture his first Cup Series title and finished fifth in this season’s first desert outing back in March. Truex took home the victory in that race after leading the last 25 laps while Hamlin is one of five active drivers with multiple wins at the track, visiting victory lane in 2012 and 2019.

For full results, click HERE

For full standings, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson wins third in a row, ninth of 2021 at Kansas

With his second streak of three consecutive wins, Kyle Larson reached a NASCAR Cup Series mark last obtained by Dale Earnhardt.

Automatic advancement to the NASCAR Cup Series’ championship race at Phoenix was, once again, no excuse for Kyle Larson to take the weekend off.

Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet earned its ninth victory of the 2021 season by leading 130 of the Hollywood Casino 400’s 267 laps at Kansas Speedway. The team has now won three races in a row with two events left on the schedule. Larson had previously punched his championship ticket with a win at Texas last weekend. The win before that at Charlotte’s road course was likewise earned with nothing to gain, as Larson was already in the ongoing Round of 8 based on points.

The win at Kansas, Larson’s first in 14 starts, proved historic in more ways than one. Larson has now led 69,032 laps this season, setting the all-time Cup Series record for a 36-race season (passing fellow HMS legend Jeff Gordon’s tally during his championship trek in 2001). Larson’s second “three-peat” of 2021 also makes him the first driver since Dale Earnhardt in 1987 to win three straight races on two occasions in the same season. The previous trio came at Charlotte, Sonoma, and Nashville earlier in the spring.

A Hendrick Motorsports vehicle also visited victory lane on an emotional weekend: Sunday marked the 17th anniversary since a plane owned by the team crashed en route to an event at Martinsville Speedway. All 10 passengers on board were killed, including team owner Rick Hendrick’s 24-year-old son Ricky. Larson’s primary paint scheme this season, sponsored by HendrickCars.com, has strongly resembled the car the younger Hendrick drove during his day on the NASCAR Busch (now Xfinity) Series circuit. Ricky’s only NASCAR national series victory came in a Truck Series race at Kansas in July 2001.

The defending Cup Series champion and Larson’s HMS teammate, Chase Elliott, finished second. Elliott is currently the first driver admitted to the final four on points, holding a 34-point advantage on fifth-place Ryan Blaney. Non-playoff drivers Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch finished third and fourth while semifinalist Denny Hamlin (32 points ahead of fifth) rounded out the top five.

Nine to 5

A lack of stakes was no obstacle for the No. 5 team, which is now one win away from earning the first 10-win Cup season since yet another HMS legend, Jimmie Johnson, did so in 2007. Larson had a decent advantage through starting on the pole and wound up staying up front for most of the afternoon.

Larson knows that his dominant season will be instantly forgotten if he doesn’t hoist the championship trophy in Phoenix. He’s hoping that a strong showing at Kansas and one more short track visit to Martinsville next week will generate the momentum necessary to finish things off, even if Phoenix is, in his own words, “a different style track than we’ve been winning on”. The driver of the No. 5 has also set a late, lofty goal in that he hopes his return to the circuit could go down as one of the five greatest seasons in the history of the sport.

“It’s like hard for me to think if people will really remember if you don’t win the championship now at this point,” Larson said after the race. “You can read into it adding pressure that I want to win the championship, even more, to cap off what’s been a great season…So that’s my goal, and I hope we can finish it off with being mentioned in one of the top five greatest seasons ever.”

Despite that lofty goal, Larson refused to label himself the championship favorite.

“I think looking at the drivers in the Round of 8, you can make a strong case for every single one of us, why we could win the championship at Phoenix. So I don’t know,” Larson said when queried about the coming finale. “I don’t think you can pick a favorite. I think maybe, yes, you can look at me as being the favorite because of the momentum and stuff that we’re on and all that. But I can make a case for any one of the other seven drivers, why they could beat me and beat any of us. Anybody can win I think in the Final 8 right now.”

Chase’s Chase

The biggest threat to Larson’s dominance was his own teammates: Hendrick Chevrolets led 229 of 267 laps on Sunday, with Elliott pacing 42. Though his playoff journey ended after the Round of 12, William Byron led 57 and won the second 81-lap stage. Byron’s quest for an upset victory was derailed by a pit road miscue: as the leaders made one last stop during a caution brought out by Ryan Newman’s spin with 48 to go, Byron won the race off pit road but was forced to revisit due to loose lug nuts. The No. 24 Chevrolet eventually recovered to finish sixth.

With Byron out of contention, Elliott took the lead from Kurt Busch on lap 223’s restart but Larson reassumed to top spot six circuits later. The defending champ’s No. 9 closed in on Larson as the laps dwindled, but some contact with the wall forced him to settle for the runner-up spot.

Elliott is still in a prime position to compete in the Championship 4 through his 34-point lead, though he should know better than anyone about the potential for chaos at Martinsville: faced with a win-or-go-home situation in last year’s event, Elliott came from the rear of the field to win, overcoming an overturned pit road penalty en route.

Halloween gets scarier for postseason cusp

Several playoff drivers had early issues with their tires, a situation that manufacturer Goodyear attributed to windy conditions at Kansas. Larson admitted that strengthened winds that picked up after a 15-minute red flag for weather after lap 12 “caught (him) off guard”.

“I went off turn 2 and somebody shoved my car and pushed me a half a group up,” Larson recalled. “I made a quick mental note of that and how the balance was into 3 and kind of adjusted…Kansas, for whatever reason, is typically like the only track I feel like that affects the balance of the race car with the wind. A lot of times it will be a tailwind off of 2 into 3 and you’ll be really loose into 3. But the crosswind today was odd.”

While Larson obviously recovered, several other drivers weren’t as lucky: Goodyear noted that the playoff cars of Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. were affected. Keselowski (17th) and Truex made contact at lap 53 and were forced to repair damage while Kyle Busch (28th) hit the wall and split his right rear quarter panel 80 laps later.

Blaney, who entered Kansas as the top driver in via points, had made his way back into the top ten by the final stages but another incident, this one involving Austin Dillon, put him in the wall with 43 to go. The damage was too great to continue and Blaney finished 37th.

“We got run into from two lanes below me. I have no idea,” Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, said of the Dillon incident. “Obviously, it hurts. Finishing 37th is not prime. We didn’t have a great day but we did a good job of fighting back and getting back into the top-10 but then just got wiped out when we had plenty of room. That sucks. It is very unfortunate.”

As it stands, Busch currently holds the final championship advancement slot, with Blaney sitting a single point behind. Truex, who rallied to finish seventh, is three points back while Keselowski is six. The last playoff driver, Joey Logano, is 26 points back and likely faces a win-or-bust situation at Martinsville.

Up Next

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday for the Xfinity 500, the penultimate event of the 2021 season, at Martinsville (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Elliott worked his way into the Championship 4 with a daring win in last year’s fall event while Truex won at the short track’s most recent visit in April.

For full results, click HERE
For full standings, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson punches ticket to championship round

Larson dodged late-race chaos to not only win at Texas but earn entry to the NASCAR Cup Series’ championship final.

Everything’s bigger in Texas…including the victories.

Kyle Larson dominated Sunday’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, leading 256 of 334 laps in the opening round of the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoffs’ Round of 8. Not only does Larson earn his series-best eighth victory of the season but he also becomes the first driver to clinch his spot in the Championship 4 that will run for the title at Phoenix on Nov. 7.

Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led the final 218 laps of the event, one that swallowed up several other semifinalists over the final stages. Joey Logano (30th) and Martin Truex Jr. (25th) each failed to finish thanks to incidents that occurred over the final 35 laps. Late damage also prevented Denny Hamlin (11th) from keeping pace with Larson. Their final positions were partly aided by an early incident at lap 32 that involved a dozen drivers.

Hendrick teammate William Byron finished second behind Larson, beating out Christopher Bell. Fellow semifinalist Brad Keselowski finished fourth while Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

The Fateful Eighth

Larson’s downright dominant effort at Texas locks him into the list of four contenders that will race for a championship at Phoenix. As the regular season champion and owner of a 40-plus point lead above the fifth-place cutoff as the Round of 8 commenced, Larson had a smooth road toward the Championship 4. He and his team nonetheless found it important to kick off the semifinal round on a strong note.

2020’s regular season champion, Kevin Harvick, appeared to be a shoo-in for the Phoenix quartet after entering the Round of 8 with nine wins. But consecutive finishes outside the top 15 forced him into a desperate situation at the penultimate race at Martinsville, one that relegated the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to the status of an also-ran. Harvick’s weighed heavily on Larson’s mind but he can now spend the next two races in relatively solace.

“We had a good points lead or whatever from the cutoff going into it, but still…Harvick had his issues last year and didn’t make the Final Four. That will always be on my mind,” Larson said after the race. “I was positioned well to where if I finished in the top four or five, I was still going to probably gain a lot, I would think, on the cut line…(but) I’m not going to plan on racing any differently these next two weeks. I still want to win stages, win some races and keep this momentum going into Phoenix.”

Larson was able to withstand five restarts over the final 34 laps despite some competitors, like Bell and Ryan Blaney (6th), working with fresher tires. His work on the restarts worked alongside his team’s fast pit stops, which helped maintain his permanent hold on the lead of an afternoon where green-flag stops were mostly eliminated.

Larson’s win was the 14th of his career, breaking a tie with fellow Hendrick Motorsports legends Tim Richmond and Chase Elliott (the latter being the defending Cup Series champion). He is also closing in on a NASCAR record held by HMS’ own Jeff Gordon: having led 2,267 laps this season, Larson is only 54 away from breaking Gordon’s record for most at the front during a 36-race season, setting such a record during his final championship trek in 2001.

“That would be really, really cool,” Larson said of potentially breaking Gordon’s mark. “I led a lot more laps today than I thought I would, so yeah, it’s definitely a goal of mine. I think somewhere in the back of my mind like it’s a goal. It’s not like something I’m upset about if I don’t lead any laps in a race or anything, but once I’m leading I want to stay in the lead to help catch that record.”

The win at Texas was Larson’s first in a points-event in the Lone Star State, though he previously took home the first-ever All-Star Race hosted by the 1.5-mile oval in June.

Postseason Pratfalls

Though the race was relatively calm following the aforementioned incident on lap 31 (which ended the days of Bubba Wallace, Ryan Newman, Alex Bowman, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., among others), several late incidents reshaped the playoff picture…

  • Joey Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford blew its engine at lap 298, pushing him back to 30th. Logano failed to earn any stages points after the first two segments and will likely need to win one of the next two races to reappear in the championship-chasing group at Phoenix as he sits 43 points away from a transfer.
  • Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota lost a tire with 21 to go and went for a spin. Though he avoided major damage, Hamlin was involved in a seperate, more costly incident involving old enemy Chase Briscoe, bringing back memories of their antagonistic encounter at the Indianapolis road course in August. Hamlin would fight back to finish ninth and owns a nine-point lead above the cut-off.
  • Another Gibbs Toyota, that of Martin Truex Jr., was involved in a Turn 3 incident with Daniel Suarez, as contact with the latter’s No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet put it into the wall. Truex’s No. 19 finished 25th and he’s now 22 points away from Phoenix.

Power of Penske

In addition to Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick machine (which was eliminated earlier this postseason), the top challenger to Larson’s reign was the Team Penske tandem of Keselowski and Blaney. The two ran in the top five most of the day and Blaney’s sixth-place finish allowed him to be labeled to the first driver currently in the final four on points, sitting 17 ahead of Elliott in fifth.

Keselowski felt that he and Blaney could’ve given the Hendrick pair a run for their money had they gotten some longer runs in the race’s dying stages.

“We had the car balanced really well with the Discount Tire Ford on the long runs,” the driver of the No. 2 said. “The last few times we have been here you get 40 or 50 or 100 lap runs at the end but today, we didn’t run more than two laps at a time for the last 45 or 50 laps. That’s just not what we needed. We needed the long runs to be able to keep them honest. We had long-run speed, but the 5 and 24 were just blistering fast on the restart and drove away from me. I just wanted some laps to let their stuff wear down.”

Up Next

The Round of 8 carries on with its middle portion on Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway’s Hollywood Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). It perhaps couldn’t be better timing for Logano, who clinched his spot in last year’s Phoenix group with a win in last year’s fall event in Kansas City. Logano is tied with Gordon, Hamlin, Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson for the most wins at the track with three, previously winning in 2014 and 2015. This will be the latter of two races at Kansas, the first won by Kyle Busch back in May.

For full results, click HERE
For full standings, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson caps Round of 12 with win at the Roval

Larson already clinched his spot to the NASCAR Cup Series’ semifinal round, but captured his first victory at Charlotte’s road course.

Faced with rare adversity after last week’s visit to Talladega, Kyle Larson clinched his spot to the NASCAR Cup Series’ semifinal playoff round in style.

Larson earned his circuit-best seventh victory of the season by leading the final eight laps of the Bank of America Roval 400 held at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course. The win helps Larson reestablish himself as the Cup Series’ playoff favorite after Monday’s rescheduled race at Talladega saw him finish 37th after contact with the wall. He’ll advance to the Round of 8, the three-race prelude to the championship race at Phoenix.

Non-playoff entrants Tyler Reddick and Chris Buescher finished behind Larson, while Joe Gibbs Racing postseason representatives Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five and likewise advanced to the last eight.

Other qualifiers to the semifinals included Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, and Martin Truex Jr. It wound up being a bittersweet day for Hendrick Motorsports, which saw Larson and Elliott advance while dealing with the subsequent eliminations of Alex Bowman and William Byron. Other exits include those of Christopher Bell and Kevin Harvick, the 2014 series champion who suffered his earliest elimination since ousting rounds were introduced in the same season.

The 5 Comes Alive

Larson had a healthy 22-point lead on the cutoff to the semifinals entering Sunday’s event. But an early elimination was a realistic possibility when voltage issues forced the No. 5 HMS Chevrolet crew to make a battery switch and get a new alternator belt at lap 35 of 109 during a caution period induced when the Fords of Buescher and Chase Briscoe got together. Larson fought back to become the first driver in Cup Series history to win three road course events in a single season, having also won at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

“My team did an amazing job today,” Larson said after the win. “(Hauler drive Steven Legendre) got the belt changed, (car chief Jesse Saunders) changed the battery, my pit crew stayed calm, I listened to (crew chief Cliff Daniels)…It’s so satisfying because I really did not think that we were going to have a shot to win today. I had a lot of different emotions throughout the middle portions of that race, thinking that this is so depressing and sad and crazy that I’m going to lose my shot at a championship because of an alternator issue, to, okay, now we got it fixed, let’s try to get away with a top 15 finish, keeping all the fenders on it.”

“I don’t even really want to think about luck, good luck, bad luck, anything right now. I just want to go out there and do our jobs and it will all take care of itself.”

Larson is renowned for his prowess in all kinds of racing, but he struggled on road courses before earning the historic trio this season. The scariest part is that Larson feels that he and his No. 5 team have only scratched the surface of what they can accomplish on such tracks.

“I still feel like I’m so far away from being where I could be as far as road course racer,” Larson said. “I still think there’s lots of, tons of, room for improvement. I think there are so many more people out there that are better than me at underbraking, just doing little things better than me and we’re able to get wins like we are. I feel like if I can put some more work in, I should hopefully get a lot better.”

Chase the Past Away

Despite Larson’s win, Hendrick headlines are likely set to center on defending series champion Chase Elliott, who also won the prior two visits to the Roval.

The young yet storied rivalry between Elliott and Harvick embarked on a new chapter on Sunday: halfway through the event, Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford made contact with Elliott’s back bumper, and the subsequent damage spun Elliott out of control and eventually cost him his rear just over 30 laps later. It might’ve been fair to assume that Harvick’s gambit was revenge for an incident between the pair at Bristol Motor Speedway’s night race three weeks prior: each blamed the other for costing them a chance for a valuable playoff win and confronted each other on pit road after that event. Harvick took the lost victory especially personally, as he’s still searching for his first win of the season after winning a series-best nine in 2020.

Elliott was able to stay on the lead lap and rallied back to finish 12th. His efforts paid off when Harvick’s day ended in heartbreak with 11 laps to go: his tires locked up going into the first turn, sending his No. 4 into the wall and relegating him to 33rd.

There was no love lost between the respective teams as Harvick’s departure was labeled “karma” by Elliott’s spotter Eddie D’Hondt. Elliott himself tried to keep things centered on his advancement during a postrace interview with NBC Sports, but he slipped in a sly reference to Harvick’s nickname of “Happy”.

“I’m really proud of our team, just proud of moving our NAPA team. (They) did a really, really good job of fixing this thing. It’s destroyed,” Elliott said. “Our team has a lot of fight. I’m just super proud of that. As far as Kevin goes, just want to wish them a merry off-season and a happy Christmas…Opinion (of Harvick) is certainly not changing. But it’s all good, just glad we’re moving on. (I’m) proud of our team.”

Bye-ron

Further Hendrick heartbreak awaited Byron and Bowman, who saw their postseasons in the Nos. 24 and 48 Chevrolets end. With each facing a 40-plus point deficit, their Chevys faced a must-win situation at Charlotte.

Bowman was never a factor after enduring electrical and mechanical issues similar to Larson’s early woes, though he did manage to secure his 15th top-ten finish of the season, tying a career-best set last year. Byron, on the other hand, led a race-best 30 laps but a subpar pit stop with just over 20 laps to go cost him some track position. As he tried to get back to the front, Byron made contact with Reddick’s No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, causing him to miss a required chicane. He worked his way back to third on the penultimate lap but contact with the wall relegated him to an 11th-place finish.

Byron would later criticize Reddick, who was amongst the first four drivers eliminated from the playoffs in the Round of 16, for his “lack of awareness”.

Up Next

The Round of 8 kicks off next Sunday afternoon’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Kyle Busch disrupted the final eight’s party last fall with a rain-delayed victory, his fourth in Fort Worth. Larson won the most recent visit to the track, winning the oval’s first hosting of the NASCAR All-Star Race in June.

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Kyle Larson wraps Round of 16 with win at Bristol

As chaos erupted amongst his NASCAR Cup Series playoff competitors, Kyle Larson took home his sixth win of the season.

A ticket to the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, earned via points, did nothing to remove Kyle Larson’s competitive nature on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet passed Kevin Harvick with four laps to go in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race to earn his series-best sixth win of the season. His pass came as the playoff standings shuffled thanks to several late-race calamities, including a get-together between Harvick and Larson’s HMS teammate and defending Cup champion Chase Elliott.

The pair made contact fighting for the lead, leading to a flat tire for Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott was nonetheless was one of the dozen drivers to advance to round two, but that didn’t prevent a physical postrace confrontation on pit road with Harvick, who likewise advanced.

William Byron beat out Aric Almirola by two points to reach the Round of 12 with a third-place finish. Tyler Reddick, Kurt Busch, and Michael McDowell were likewise eliminated from title contention. Fellow advancers Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman rounded out the top five.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Guess Who’s Back

Larson’s dominant season continued at Bristol, leading a race-best 175 of 500 laps en route to his sixth win of the season and first at the 0.533-mile Coliseum. In his first year at HMS, Larson has already matched the six victories he earned over his six full seasons at Chip Ganassi Racing.

With the application of the PJ1 traction compound and the moving of the race from late August to September, Larson’s 15th attempt at The Last Great Coliseum was different after he missed both editions last year. It was, however, not enough a variant to disrupt his success: Saturday was good for his eighth top-ten in 13 starts on Bristol’s asphalt.

“I thought (turns) one and two (were) a little bit slicker than normal, like harder to hit your marks,” Larson said of the track. Three and four I felt like was pretty normal around the bottom. The top probably didn’t build up as much rubber as I remembered either.”

“Either way, the characteristics are similar to how it always is. There’s always a little bit of a difference any time you go to any racetrack year to year. It was for the most part pretty normal.”

Larson battled Denny Hamlin for the lead for a good portion of the night, including a pair of showdowns for the victories of the first two 125-lap stages. It mirrored the fight they staged for the regular-season title and the 15-point bonus that came with it. Larson won that battle after the first 26 races while the pair exchanged stage wins. Hamlin, who had already advanced to the Round of 12 with a win at Darlington two weeks ago, fell out of contention when he lost a tire and hit the wall with 100 laps to go but manage to muster a top-ten finish (9th).

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Champions Fight at The Coliseum

Bristol’s cramped quarters and intense short-track racing often create flared tempers. That anger only intensifies with the new postseason implications attached. Cup Series champions are no exception to such fury.

Elliott and Harvick hadn’t earned the clinching victory that assured access to round two but they had relatively healthy cushions on the cutoff. Their ensuing battle for the win became the latest feud in annals of Bristol’s asphalt, joining previous great battles of Coliseum past like Dale Earnhardt vs. Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon vs. Matt Kenseth.

As the race dipped under 50 laps to go, Elliot, Harvick, and Larson broke away from the rest of the field. Elliott and Harvick ran into lapped traffic and made contact as they got around Josh Bilicki. The friction cut down Elliott’s left front tire, forcing him to pit road with 33 laps to go. Relegated to lapped traffic, Elliott bumped Harvick after the forced service. Their confrontation continued on pit road after the race and later moved to Elliott’s hauler.

According to Elliott, the battle between him and Harvick was several weeks in the making.

“Whether he did it on purpose doesn’t matter. At some point, you have to draw a line,” Elliott, the defending series champion, told NBCSN in the aftermath. “I don’t care who he is or how long he’s been doing it, I’m going to stand up for myself and my team and we’re going down the road.”

Harvick was searching for his first win of the season after earning a circuit-best nine last year. The 2014 champion didn’t mince words when speaking about his confrontation with Elliott after the race.

“I just told him it was kind of a chicken (expletive) move he did there at the end,” Harvick told NBCSN. “We’re racing for the freaking win at Bristol, three-wide, he throws a temper tantrum. I was just trying to get the lead and race him hard. Then he pulls up in front of me and sits there till I lose the whole lead.”

“I’m ready to rip somebody’s freaking head off.”

Almirola, Reddick, Busch, McDowell Awakened from Playoff Dreams

Championship prospects ended for four playoff drivers on Saturday night. While the underdog McDowell was facing a win-or-go-home scenario (entering Bristol 38 points out of 12th), Almirola, Reddick, and Kurt Busch each had a chance to get in on points thanks to a roller-coaster evening from other playoff contenders.

Busch’s dream of delivering a championship for Chip Ganassi Racing’s swan song went by the wayside, as he fought an ill-handling No. 1 Chevrolet all night en route to a 19th-place finish. Reddick dealt with early radio issues and finished 12th, two points behind Byron in the final seed.

Almirola and his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing crew went through the most eventful evening. He entered the race three points above the cutoff and ran in the top 15 for most of the first part of the night. He was running 10th when his car started smoking, forcing a visit to pit road when a Turn 2 incident involving Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace, and Cole Custer brought out the yellow flag. His crew found fluid in the left front tire and later discovered a broken oil line.

Despite several visits to pit road under the yellow, the No. 10 crew managed to keep Almirola on the lead lap. It wasn’t enough, however, to take down Byron’s third-place finish, one boosted by tire issues for Kyle Busch (21th) and Christopher Bell (29th). Both of those Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas nonetheless advanced, while Almirola finished two points shy of advancement.

“It was frustrating. (I’m) disappointed to have it end like that just because we had battled so much adversity throughout the night, got into a position where we were running top 10, doing what we were needing to do,” said Almirola, who finished 18th. “That’s not the way we wanted it to end. But we’ll keep going and battle it out the rest of the Playoffs and see if we can’t finish inside the top 10 in points.”

What’s Next

The Round of 12 opens next Sunday as Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s South Point 400. Larson earned his first HMS victory at the venue’s first event of 2021, the Pennzoil 400 in March. Sin City native Kurt Busch is the defending champion of the event.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney holds off powers of Hendrick to win at Michigan

With his win at Michigan, Ryan Blaney has now won multiple NASCAR Cup Series races in a single season for the first time in his career.

Faced with a challenge from Hendrick Motorsports’ finest, Ryan Blaney made sure that Sunday’s Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway was, instead, Penske material.

Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford took advantage of a late restart, taking his first lead of the day at lap 193 of 200. He then held off a furious rally from the HMS duo of William Byron and Kyle Larson long enough to earn his second win of the season and first since Atlanta in March. Blaney held off Byron by 0.077 seconds to secure the win and his first multi-victory season at the Cup level. Larson, leader of a race-high 70 laps, finished third while Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.

Blaney started the afternoon in the third spot but quickly fell out of the top 15. His descent allowed HMS Chevrolets to take over. Chase Elliott won the first 60-lap stage in his No. 9 Chevrolet. Kyle Busch won the second stage for Joe Gibbs Racing but Elliott (8th), Byron, and Larson united to lead 136 of 200 laps. After Elliott faded after the second stage (pitting twice within 13 laps for tires), Byron and Larson appeared to do battle for the final victory.

Two late caution flags, however, set up late dramatics. A brief stop for rain set up a 16-lap shootout which was interrupted by a multi-car get-together that took out Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Christopher Bell, and Josh Berry (who was subbing for Corey LaJoie in the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet due to COVID-19 protocols). Blaney was situated in the fourth spot when the race went green again with eight to go after the chaos.

Using a strong push from Kyle Busch (7th), Blaney managed to clear the front row of Byron and Kurt Busch to secure the lead. He then held off Hendrick’s finest, denying them their 12th victory of the season. Blaney also allowed the Ford Motor Company to keep a dominant streak at MIS alive. Those repping the blue oval have now won seven straight races in Brooklyn.

Sunday’s race at Michigan was the penultimate race of the NASCAR Cup Series’ regular season. All but one spot in the 16-seed playoff field has been clinched as Kevin Harvick (14th) secured his spot on points. One final spot is up for grabs at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the famed Daytona International Speedway on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, NBC).

Tyler Reddick (29th) missed an opportunity to expand his hold on the final seed after his teammate Austin Dillon (36th) was involved in a wreck after stage two ended, as contact with Brad Keselowski put him into the wall. Reddick leads Dillon by 22 points for the final spot, though he would lose it if a winless driver inside the top 30 in points managed to win at Daytona.

For full results, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR returns in familar fashion, as Kyle Larson takes Watkins Glen

Larson ended Chase Elliott’s monopoly on Schuyler County, leading the last 27 laps in the return of the NASCAR Cup Series.

We now return to our regularly scheduled NASCAR programming.

The NASCAR Cup Series ended two different pauses on Sunday at Watkins Glen International: Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen event not only ended a two-week hiatus for the circuit due to the Tokyo Olympics but also its return to Schuyler County. A Cup Series staple since 1986, WGI’s date was canceled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic last season. Sunday’s return produced a familiar result.

Kyle Larson led the final 26 laps of Sunday’s race, earning his series-best fifth victory of the year and his first at The Glen. Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet denied teammate and defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott a chance to become the first driver since Jeff Gordon to win three consecutive Cup races at The Glen (1997-99). Elliott did finish in the runner-up spot, marking the fourth time he and Larson have swept the top two positions this season.

Joe Gibbs Toyotas driven by Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.

Larson ran started the race in fourth behind the Team Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney. Keselowski, the pole sitter, led the first nine laps before spinning, as his day was marred by brake issues. Logano’s No. 22 Ford would win the first of two 20-lap stages before giving way to Gibbs Toyotas. Over the second segment, Larson battled Truex and Christopher Bell for the lead, getting into trouble when contact spun the latter’s No. 20. Larson apologized to Bell, who recovered to finish seventh, during his postrace interview with NBC Sports.

Truex, winner of The Glen’s 2017 event, won the second stage and occupied the two spots with Larson when each of them made their final pit stop of the day with 33 laps to go. A strong service from the No. 5 crew allowed Larson to get off first, giving him the inside edge for the lead when pit stops cycled around. The resulting big interval, peaking at over 12 seconds, allowed him to hold off the charging No. 9 of Elliott, who sliced Larson’s lead down to 2.4 seconds after getting around Truex for the runner-up slot.

Elliott’s second-place run capped off a roller-coaster day for the No. 9 team. They were forced to start from the rear of the field after failing prerace inspection due to a faulty rear-window air deflector. Multiple failures led to the ejection of Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson and the loss of 10 points in the championship standings (Bell dealt with the same issues, losing his crew chief Adam Stevens).

Larson has now earned five wins this season, breaking his previous career-best of four set during the 2017 season. Two of those wins have come at road courses, having previously won at Sonoma in June. This latest win also ties Larson for the Cup Series’ regular season points lead with Hamlin, who has yet to visit victory lane this season. Elliott’s seven wins on road courses, including the most recent at Road America, are good for third-best in Cup Series history, behind only fellow champions Gordon (9) and Tony Stewart (8).

Another road course lingers next week. The Cup Series will make its maiden voyage on the road course at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard (1 p.m. ET, NBC).

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

Kyle Larson continues dominance as NASCAR debuts at Nashville

Kyle Larson continued his dominant ways on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit, which ran at Nashville Superspeedway for the first time.

A new track produced the same result for the NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Larson once again dominated proceedings on the premier racing circuit, leading 264 of 300 laps in the inaugural Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway to win the Ally 400. Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has now won each of the last four Cup Series events, including last weekend’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas. HMS vehicles have won five consecutive official points events overall, helping the team strengthen its grip on the record for most team victories in Cup Series history (now at 271 after Sunday).

“It was another good one. We’ve had probably the best race car on the racetrack for at least a month and a half, so good to take advantage of it, get another win,” Larson said after the win. (We were) able to jump out to a lead right from the get-go, basically lead the rest of the race. If it wasn’t for the cautions at the ends of the stages, we had a near-perfect day.”

Larson took the lead on lap 6, shortly after the race restarted following Quin Houff’s wreck on the opening lap due to a lost tire. The No. 5 went three-wide with Kyle Busch and pole-sitter Aric Almirola to nab the top spot, setting the tone for familiar domination. HMS teammate Chase Elliott was able to take the first 90-lap stage after staying out during a caution induced by Chris Buescher and Justin Haley’s wreck on the 77th circuit. It was all Larson after that, as he coasted to his 10th career Cup Series victory and series-best fourth of the 2021 season.

“It’s awesome to get multiple wins in a row now in the Cup Series…just cool to do that,” he said. “I didn’t think that was possible ever for me in the Cup Series anyways. I’ve gone on streaks in dirt racing and stuff before, but never been close to doing anything like that in Cup. It’s been awesome. To get to now double-digit point-paying wins is great. I’d like to keep winning and keep inching my name up the winner’s list not only at NASCAR but at Hendrick Motorsports, too. I think that’s important to me.”

Larson has now led a career-best 1,426 laps this season (tops in the series and 670 ahead of points-leader Denny Hamlin) and is the first driver to win three straight points races since Brad Keselowski in 2018. The No. 5 is also only 10 points behind Hamlin for the Cup Series points lead, which affords a 15-point bonus for when the NASCAR playoffs begin in September.

Ross Chastain had a career-best finish in the runner-up slot, followed by HMS representative William Byron and Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Aric Almirola and Kevin Harvick.

This weekend marked NASCAR’s return to the Music City area at the newly renovated 1.333-mile track in Lebanon. The track previously held events in the NASCAR Xfinity and Truck Series (as well as the IndyCar Series) from 2001 through 2011, but the Cup Series had not been to Nashville since 1984 at Fairgrounds Speedway. Larson praised the fans’ enthusiasm and relished this win a little more due to its significance on the NASCAR calendar.

“I stayed in the city this week. I got to see how pumped up all the race fans were for the race this weekend,” he said. “There (were) a lot of fans that recognized me throughout the last couple days walking around, wishing me good luck, saying how excited they were to go to the race. That’s what kind of made me feel extra special about this race, is just seeing how excited the fans were to go to a new venue, sort of getting to watch some Cup racing in Nashville.”

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next weekend at Pocono Raceway, which will host a doubleheader on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • With the series descending upon Nashville for the first time, qualifying was held hours before Sunday’s event. Almirola earned it in No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and used the momentum to nab his first top five of the season.

 

  • Elliott went on to finish 13th but he was disqualified in postrace inspection due to five loose lug nuts that relegated him to last place (39th). His stage win was transferred over to runner-up Kurt Busch, who finished eighth. A fine and crew chief suspension will likely be announced later this week.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson continues to dominate, wins return to Sonoma

Kyle Larson helped Hendrick Motorsports expand the all-time wins record with his second consecutive victory in NASCAR’s return to Sonoma.

Last weekend at Charlotte, Kyle Larson helped Hendrick Motorsports set the record for most victories for a single team in NASCAR Cup Series history. On Sunday, Larson helped HMS get to work in making sure that they’ll never be caught.

The Cup Series returned to Sonoma Raceway this weekend after a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Larson’s No. 5 HMS Chevrolet once again dominated the proceedings, leading 55 of 90 laps at the Toyota/SaveMart 350. Rick Hendrick’s vehicles have now won four consecutive races while Larson joined Martin Truex Jr. as the only three-time winner this season.

Larson sat on the pole for the return to Sonoma, a familiar spot for him at the Wine Country-based road course. He had started first in each of the last three visits to Northern California but led only 11 laps in six previous visits, his best finish being 10th in 2019.

On Sunday, however, the No. 5 was clicking on all cylinders, as the victory was earned through a complete team effort. A rare threat to Larson’s supremacy came with 18 laps to go, when the No. 00 Chevrolet of Quin Houff lost its engine and stalled on the racetrack. When a majority of the lead lap cars visited pit road for tires and fuel, Larson’s crew got him out quickly, setting him up in fifth-place and top car on fresh tires.

“All these wins are team wins,” Larson said of his No. 5 squad. “My relationship with (crew chief Cliff Daniels) and everybody on the No. 5 car is great…This series is so tough that you can easily get knocked back down and be struggling. We just have to continue to work hard. The pit crew has been doing a great job. Cliff and everybody out at the shop on all the cars have been doing great.”

It took Larson only two laps to retake the lead, passing Joey Logano right before another yellow flag for a multi-car get-together. Larson then overcame several other on-track incidents to hold the lead on multiple restarts before holding off teammate and defending series champion Chase Elliott for the win in an overtime finish.

HMS driver William Byron saw his day end in one of those wrecks (his first DNF since Martinsville last November) but Larson continued to carry the torch. With Larson winning and teammate Chase Elliott finishing second, HMS vehicles have also finished in the top two spots in four consecutive races. Such a streak had not been achieved in NASCAR since 1956, when Carl Kiekhaefer’s vehicles pulled it off.

Between Larson, Elliott, Byron, and Alex Bowman, Hendrick Chevrolets have united to win seven of the 16 points races on the Cup Series docket.

I feel like you have to race each other a little bit differently. You don’t want to run into each other and damage their car or damage yours take out two opportunities for our organization to get a win,” Larson said of racing his teammates for big positions. “It’s been cool to get to race really hard with Chase. William and Alex have been doing a great job this year. To have us all getting wins and battling upfront, all throughout the race, it’s awesome.”

“We all want to see each other do good, so we work really well together. I think we all learn something off of each other each week.”

Martin Truex Jr., the winner of the last two Sonoma visits, finished third, while Logano and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five.

Following the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway next weekend, the Cup Series returns to action on Sunday, June 20 for its maiden voyage at Nashville Superspeedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • After only one incident-induced caution (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s wreck a lap 32) over the first 70 laps (not counting two stage endings and a competition flag at lap 10), the final 20 featured several wrecks that induced damage to several renowned names.

 

  • With Byron failing to finish the race (his wreck also involving Alex Bowman, Kevin Harvick, and Christopher Bell among others), only Denny Hamlin (8th), Austin Dillon (13th), and Chase Briscoe (17th) have been running at the finish in all 16 races this season.

 

  • After Sunday’s race, Larson moved into second place in the points standings and now sits 47 points behind leader Denny Hamlin. Larson trailed Hamlin, who has yet to win this season, by 135 points after the Richmond race seven weeks prior. The Cup Series’ regular season champion earns 15 bonus points to start the opening playoff round at Darlington in September. Ten events linger before the postseason cutoff.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags