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 

NASCAR: Kyle Larson domination secures Hendrick Motorsports record

Through Larson’s dominant win at the Coca-Cola 600, Hendrick Motorsports became the winningest team in NASCAR Cup Series history.

Hendrick Motorsports made history in a familiar way: together in dominant fashion.

Rick Hendrick’s race team became the winningest team in NASCAR Cup Series history on Sunday night, as Kyle Larson dominated the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to earn the group’s 269th victory, passing Richard Petty’s Petty Enterprises. Larson led 327 of 400 laps in the longest event on the NASCAR circuit (600 miles).

HMS Chevrolets have now won three consecutive events to tie and break Petty’s record. Larson took home his second win of the year, with his teammates Chase Elliott, William Byron, and Alex Bowman finishing second, fourth, and fifth respectively. Only third-place Kyle Busch broke up on the HMS monopoly in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

“It’s perfect. Everything down to the way they mow the lawn. It looks amazing. They put a level of pride and effort into everything…(Hendrick) has built such an amazing empire. Everyone there loves to work there,” Larson said of working with HMS. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for him. Getting to see the level of respect everyone has for him, how they love to work for him, it shows how great of a person he is…there’s a lot to be learned off of him.”

Hendrick, 71, made his fortune as the owner of several Chevrolet dealerships. He entered NASCAR ownership in 1984 and his team has gone on to win 13 Cup Series titles and over 300 races in the three national touring series. Elliott earned the most recent championship last season in the No. 9 Chevrolet.

Sunday’s win was almost thematic in its timing. Not only is Charlotte a five-minute drive from HMS headquarters in Concord, but the No. 5 Chevrolet currently driven by Larson also raced to Hendrick’s first victory back in 1984 with Geoffrey Bodine behind the wheel at Martinsville.

Hendrick had a little bit of pride in capturing the win at Charlotte but would’ve been happy with any of his quartet reaching victory lane.

“I really wanted to do it in Charlotte,” Hendrick said. “(But) I didn’t care who broke the record, I just wanted to win it. Any one of them, I pull for them all the same. It’s tough when they’re battling each other for the lead, but the objective in this race was winning…It’s like having a bunch of kids. You love them all the same, each one of them has different strengths and characteristics. But at the end of the day, they work well together.”

The Charlotte dominance was Larson’s second win in the No. 5, which also played host to Terry Labonte’s Cup Series title in 1996. Finishing off dominating performances has been a struggle for Larson. He previously led at least 200 laps in six prior events but came out winless each time. Additionally, he is by far the 2021 leader in laps at the front with 1,105. It wasn’t hard for Larson to get the lead early on. This weekend’s events held qualifying at the 1.5-mile oval and Larson’s time put him on the pole next to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the front row.

He closed the deal on Sunday, holding a final margin of over 10 seconds on Elliott. The No. 5 led the way for HMS, whose four vehicles led all but 17 laps on Sunday. It wasn’t hard for Larson to get the lead early on. This weekend’s events held qualifying at the 1.5-mile oval and Larson’s time put him on the pole next to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the front row. Elliott and Byron were third and fourth right behind them at the start.

HMS Chevrolets have now won each of the last three races, with Bowman previously winning at Dover and Elliott winning last week at the Circuit of the Americas. Byron, piloting Jeff Gordon’s No. 24, has finished in the top ten in all but one of the past 13 races and set a new career-best with his sixth top-five finish of the year on Sunday.

“It’s a great problem to have,” Larson said of racing his teammates for victories. “We’ve done a great job of racing each other hard, but yet not putting each other in a bad spot either so. We all want to see each other succeed for Rick and we all work great together during the week and even on the weekends…we’re racing with respect.”

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Sonoma Raceway’s road course for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 (4 p.m. ET, FS1).

 (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Race Notes

  • Hendrick vehicles last won three consecutive races in 2015, when Gordon, Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. respectively won at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix.

 

  • Only two cautions emerged for on-track incidents. Kurt Busch’s No. 1 Chevrolet had a belt issue that eventually leaked oil on the track at lap 174 while Ryan Newman lost a tired and hit the wall at lap 297. All other cautions signaled the end of three 100-lap stages (all won by Larson).

 

  • Busch’s bad day was part of a brutal outing for Chip Ganassi Racing, as Ross Chastain likewise had a problem in his No. 42. The day was not a total loss for CGR, as Alex Palou placed second in the Indianapolis 500.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

How William Byron and Co. became NASCAR’s hottest team

No team in the NASCAR Cup Series has been on a longer roll than Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet group.

The NASCAR Cup Series’ official throwback festivities commence next weekend at Darlington Raceway. Thanks to the efforts of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team, fans and observers have been getting a steady dose of nostalgics when they look at the leaderboard.

No vehicle on the premier Cup Series circuit has been hotter than the Camaro piloted by William Byron, who has earned top ten finishes in each of the last eight races, a streak that began with a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February. That win allowed him to become the first driver to drive Rick Hendrick’s No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane since Jeff Gordon’s 93rd and final Cup Series win at Martinsville in 2015.

The streak has allowed Byron to create an average finish of 10.3, second-best amongst full-time drivers behind Denny Hamlin, the only other driver with eight top tens over the first ten races.

The scariest part? Byron feels that the No. 24 squad has emerged from one of the harder portions of the Cup Series schedule. The series resumes action on Sunday at Kansas Speedway for the Buschy McBusch Race 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1). He has finished in the top ten in each of the last three visits to the Sunflower State, including an eighth-place posting in the most recent endeavor last October. His Chevrolet will start in the front row next to Brad Keselowski.

“I think for us, we’re going into some of these tracks that are some of our best tracks,” Byron said in a Wednesday conference call. “I feel really confident that Kansas is a place we can go there and try to win. I think we’ve gotten through a couple of obstacles with the Bristol dirt race. That was definitely one that we thought we were going to really struggle, (as well as) Talladega and Richmond.”

Overcoming obstacles has been a common theme of Byron’s season. Despite relatively little dirt experience he finished sixth at Bristol and overcame a spin at Talladega last weekend to finish in the runner-up spot behind Keselowski’s Ford. In between, Byron scored his best finish at Richmond, a site where he’s often struggled to stay on the lead lap.

These conquests have allowed Byron to develop confidence, which he credits for setting the pace for what’s been his most lucrative season to date. This campaign is Byron’s fourth in the Cup Series, his best standings finish being 11th in 2019. He entered the circuit with a fair amount of hype after taking home the 2017 Xfinity Series title as a 20-year-old driving a Chevrolet owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“For two years, I really felt out of the box,” Byron said of his first two Cup seasons. “I felt uncomfortable I guess, in a way. I kind of felt like in order to produce the results and be up front, I had to really drive kind of over your head in a way.”

Even with the newly built confidence, not every race is going to end in victory lane, but Byron said the perfect source was finding wins that didn’t exactly show up on the scoring pylons.

“In NASCAR, I think performance is that needle-mover for confidence,” Byron said. “The biggest thing I heard coming from Legend Cars is oh man, you’re not going to win as much. So, how do you find confidence in other ways? Well, I think it comes from working with your crew chief and figuring out how to make the car faster. There are small victories in finishing top ten at Richmond, which has been a track where I usually get lapped. There are small wins along the way that help build that confidence.”

“(Today,) I don’t feel uncomfortable at all. I don’t look at any of the people I race against as any different…I raced for Kyle Busch, so that was nerve-wracking to race against him every week. And those things were there and those elements of feeling like I was out of place were there. Once you get past that feeling, which, you have to have those results to have that feeling go away, so it comes hand-in-hand with results.”

Byron’s confidence is healthily subsidized by his chemistry with a relatively new crew chief in Rudy Fugle. The pair previously collaborated during the 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, winning seven races in a truck owned the aforementioned Busch. He also credited last season’s crew chief-turned-vice president of competition Chad Knaus (a seven-time champion pit boss with Jimmie Johnson) for his work as well as the hard-working men and women in the HMS shop.

The No. 24’s return to glory is perhaps one the NASCAR world should’ve seen coming. Byron worked his way into the NASCAR playoffs with a win in the regular season finale at Daytona. Though he failed to advance past the first round of the postseason, momentum and confidence were developed with four top ten finishes over the last six races.

True to form, Byron said there was no singular, lightswitch-flipping moment. He instead credited teammates for assistance in a path forward, including those beyond the No. 24 garage stall. Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott has been a particularly strong mentor, a relationship that includes providing a lofty benchmark to live up to.

“I think there’s not really a specific turning point. I think we’ve really relied heavily on our teammates,” Byron said. “Chase has run really well over the past six or seven months and winning the championship and all that. We’ve relied heavily on some of their set-ups and some of the things that Chase says; trying to get my driving style a little bit closer to what the set-up needs and the car needs. It’s a little bit of everything.”

“We’ve got to try to match that standard or try to improve upon it. We have a lot of respect for (Elliott’s No. 9 team) and their effort and the way that they execute races, the way that Chase drives, and all those things. So, we try to work on that and make it our own.”

Byron’s next win could prove historic: Hendrick Motorsports is currently two wins away from tying Petty Enterprises for the most Cup Series victories by one team, a tally aided by 2021 wins from Byron and teammates Kyle Larson (Las Vegas) and Alex Bowman (Richmond).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

NASCAR: Alex Bowman steals Richmond triumph, ends Hendrick drought

In a NASCAR race dominated by Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas, Bowman took the lead from Denny Hamlin with 10 to go to earn a win for the No. 48 team.

A new driver may pilot the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but its propensity for dramatic victories apparently remains.

Alex Bowman, driving the vehicle Jimmie Johnson took to seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, earned his first win in the iconic machine, passing Denny Hamlin with 10 laps to go to win the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on Sunday afternoon. Bowman began a final 12-lap stretch in third place before getting by Hamlin and Joey Logano to earn the victory, his first since taking over for Johnson. It was HMS’ first triumph at Richmond since Johnson won in September 2008.

Hamlin, who led a race-high 207 of 400 laps, finished second ahead of Logano, while Hamlin’s fellow JGR drivers Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top five.

“It means a lot to get Ally a win, get the 48 back where it belongs,” Bowman said. “It’s been a rough start to the year, but Ally has been super committed…so cool to get them a win. It means the world to me. I’m appreciative for them to have faith in me.”

Bowman, 27, earned his third career Cup Series win, all coming at HMS. He burst onto the scene in 2016, taking over for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr in the No. 88. He earned full-time honors when Earnhardt retired after the 2017 season and was called upon to succeed Johnson in the No. 48 when “Seven-Time” moved on. Ironically, Bowman’s victory came on the same weekend that Johnson made his IndyCar debut, finishing 19th in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

Despite dominance from the Gibbs Toyotas of Hamlin and Truex…combining to lead 308 of 400 laps…Bowman’s car lingered in the top ten for most of the day. Logano took over after Truex’s No. 19 for speeding at lap 294. As Hamlin and Logano waged war for the lead, Bowman’s opportunity came when Kevin Harvick lost his right-side tires and wrecked with 18 to go. The No. 48 emerged third after the lead lap cars came to pit road.

Bowman was able to beat Hamlin into the corner and take the lead with 10 laps to go in the dozen-lap shootout. The driver was shocked he was able to open and keep such a large lead; he mentioned that the No. 48 was not a good short-run car prior to that last stretch.

“When we drove away I was like, oh my gosh, what’s happening!” Bowman said with a smile. “I was super loose on the last couple of laps and did my best to get it back…we did a lot to improve the racecar and have it take off.”

Either way, Bowman became the eighth different winner in nine races this season. Two of Bowman’s Hendrick teammates…William Byron and Kyle Larson…are also among the winners, while Chase Elliott is the defending Cup Series champion.

The Richmond endeavor turned out to be another tough break for Hamlin, who has now earned top fives in all but one of the first nine races…though none have ended in victory lane. He continues to lead the NASCAR Cup Series points standings with a sizable 81-point lead of Truex, the only repeat winner so far this season.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Hamlin said of his 2021 season. “You’re upset in the moment. You feel you should capitalize when you have great cars…but we’re running very strong. It’s mixed emotions.”

The unpredictability of the 2021 season will likely be raised even further next weekend, when the NASCAR Cup Series descends upon Talladega Superspeedway for the GEICO 500 on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Aric Almirola (6th) and Matt DiBenedetto (9th) earned their first top-ten finishes of the season.

 

  • Justin Haley was the only driver who failed to finish the race, completing only one lap due to engine issues.

 

  • Defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric made his first career Cup start on a short track, his third overall. He finished 28th.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney steals win from Kyle Larson at Atlanta

Kyle Larson’s dominance was of no concern to Ryan Blaney, who became the sixth different NASCAR Cup Series winner this season.

Kyle Larson led 269 of 325 laps on Sunday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway’s NASCAR Cup Series event. Alas for Larson and his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the final circuit was not one of them.

Ryan Blaney passed Larson with nine to go, earning a victory in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, becomes the sixth different winner in six events this season. Larson finished second ahead of Alex Bowman, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch.

“I’m glad I’m one of them!” a smiling Blaney said about joining the other five winners in relative playoff safety. As for the parity, Blaney added “It just goes in the off-season of prep work, how you’re going to unload, show up to race We’ve probably never seen this. I don’t know when there were six different winners in the first six races. It just shows that a lot of great teams are out there and you have to be on top of your game. It just shows how many people can win.”

Blaney and the rest of the field found themselves staring at Larson’s back bumper for a good portion of the day. Larson first took the lead after a competition caution at lap 25 from the pole sitter Hamlin and expanded his to as high as ten-plus seconds as the afternoon played out. Save for brief reprieves during green flag pit stops, Larson led for the next 189 laps, allowing him to earn victories in the first stages, consisting of 105 circuits apiece.

The No. 12 team first flexed their muscles on lap 220, when Larson teammate Chase Elliott’s car began smoking. On the ensuing pit stops, Blaney emerged first after a strong stop. He was forced to relinquish the lead to remove some debris from his grill by using the draft behind Larson. The No. 5 kept the lead after the pit cycle but Blaney was able to chase him down through a strong stop and taking care of his tires on Atlanta’s seasoned surface. Blaney made the pass with nine laps to go and stretched it out to a second to earn a victory.

“He had a huge lead there in that second stage, then he didn’t really get that far out in front of me in the start of the third stage,” Blaney recalled. “Then we were running him down pretty good until we pitted there. He got a little bit ways away from me on pit road after we came out. He stretched his lead out a tiny bit. I was like, All right, it’s going to be a 50-plus-lap run, I’m going to try to save my stuff a little bit.”

“The guys did a great job getting me out there ahead of him. They were holding off for a little bit, but he was just so good on the short run there.”

Blaney’s besting of Larson continued some unusual trends on the NASCAR spectrum. Each of Blaney’s five Cup Series victories has come through a victorious pass of the leader with less than ten laps to go while Larson has never won a race in which he has won each of the first two stages.

The win also held personal significance to Blaney, whose father Dave ran at the Cup level for parts of 17 seasons. While the elder Blaney never had the best equipment to work with, he came close to a victory two decades prior at AMS while driving the No. 93 Dodge for Bill Davis Racing. Dave led 70 laps but lost a tire and was relegated to 34th.

With fans welcomed into Atlanta at the highest rate allowed by the state of Georgia, Dave was in attendance to see his son earn the victory.

“I don’t know how solar cycles line up, every 20 years, I don’t know. (But I’m) happy we were able to avenge that loss on him,” Ryan Blaney said. “Whether it’s a stern talking to or it’s careful advice, I’ve always enjoyed talking to him, hearing what he’s got to say. Just him being around means a lot. I grew up watching dad race. Now I’m racing full-time in NASCAR. He’s watching me. That’s pretty cool.”

The NASCAR Cup Series will return to Atlanta for the Quaker State 400 presented by Wal-Mart on July 11.

As a former sprint car racer and World of Outlaws champion, Dave will likely have some helpful advice for his son with next weekend’s event looming. For the first time in over five decades, the Cup Series will race on dirt, heading to a modified version of Bristol Motor Speedway next Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). Qualifying races will be held the Saturday beforehand (6 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Kurt Busch was relegated to a last-place finish in 39th after Denny Hamlin got into the back of him on the restart after the second stage.

 

  • Elliott’s DNF was his first since the latter half of the Dover doubleheader last August.

 

  • Daniel Suarez helped Trackhouse Racing earn its first stage point with a 10th-place finish in the second segment, but a late speeding penalty on pit road pushed him back to 17th.

 

  • Defending Xfinity Series champion and current points leader Austin Cindric finished 22nd in his second career Cup Series event and his first since the season-opening Daytona 500. Cindric, who drives Team Penske’s No. 22 in the lower level, will take over the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford next season.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson wins at Las Vegas in fourth race back

It took only four Cup Series races for Kyle Larson to pilot Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet back into victory lane.

Hendrick Motorsports ruled the NASCAR Cup Series for the second consecutive weekend, as Kyle Larson put an exclamation point on his return to the circuit with a win in the Pennzoil 400 presented by JiffyLube at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Larson, driver of HMS’ No. 5 Chevrolet, earned his seventh career Cup victory and his first since he missed a majority of the 2020 campaign due to a suspension and firing from the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Larson led all but 12 of the final 61 laps en route to victory, besting the No. 2 Team Penske Ford of Brad Keselowski by over three seconds. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin came home behind them, while Keselowski’s teammate Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five.

Larson has gotten off to a strong start with HMS since he was chosen to represent the resurrection of the No. 5 branding. Through four races, Larson is one of four drivers to earn top ten finishes in three of the first four races. The hot start has been earned alongside crew chief Cliff Daniels, who celebrated his first win as a NASCAR pit boss. Daniels previously served as the crew chief for seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s bittersweet final season in the No. 48 (now driven by Alex Bowman) last year.

HMS as a whole has been clicking on all cylinders in recent NASCAR history. Chase Elliott took home last season’s Cup Series title by winning the final two races in November, while William Byron dominated the final stanzas of last weekend’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Larson’s win marked the 265th trophy the team ledgers, putting them two behind Petty Enterprises for the most in Cup Series history. Elliott’s triumph last fall was the 13th championship in team history, one of which was earned through Terry Labonte’s 1996 endeavors in the No. 5 Larson pilots today.

Hendrick’s Chevrolets dominated the early portions of Sunday’s race in Sin City. Byron, Elliott, and Larson united to lead the first 30 laps, their transitions among the first of 27 lead changes (second-most in Las Vegas history). Keselowski and his Penske group threatened to spoil the celebration, passing Larson on the penultimate lap of the first 80-lap stage to capture the early victory. Larson and Keselowski would mostly battle for the lead from there one out, with the former capturing the other 80-lap stage. During the last 107-circuit segment, Keselowski shaved seconds off his deficit when Larson lost speed through a botched pit road entry.

But a strong stop from Daniels’ No. 5 crew allowed Larson to leave in front of Keselowski’s No. 2. He would re-establish his lead from there on out, capturing the win by over three seconds. Larson is the fourth different winner over the first four races this season, joining Byron, Michael McDowell, and Christopher Bell. HMS earned consecutive wins through different drivers for the first time since 2015, when Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Adding to the sense of HMS lore on Sunday was the fact that Larson won in a car emulating the NASCAR Busch Series paint scheme of Hendrick’s late son Ricky, who held a variety of roles with the team. Ricky tragically perished, along with nine others, in 2004 in a plane crash en route to Martinsville Speedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday to the site of November’s season finale, Phoenix Raceway, for the Instacart 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Larson is the quickest driver to earn a win in a Hendrick Motorsports car, doing so in his fourth start. The record was previously held by Labonte, who won in his seventh start in the No. 5 (North Wilkesboro, 1994).

 

  • McDowell (17th) and Kevin Harvick (20th) each saw their personal streak of top-ten finishes end.

 

  • In other HMS endeavors, Elliott overcame damage in the jack area and a spin to finish 13th. Byron earned a top-ten finish (8th), but late issues for Bowman relegated him to 27th.

 

  • Corey LaJoie (rear end) and Aric Almirola (accident) each failed to finish

 

  • Erik Jones (10th) earned his first top ten of the season, as well as his first with Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 Chevrolet

 

  • Larson’s win was the first for Hendrick Motorsports at Las Vegas since the last Jimmie Johnson’s four victories at the track in 2010. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon also won the 2001 event.

 

  • Joey Logano, winner of the last two early Vegas events in Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford, finished 9th.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags