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

NASCAR: William Byron dominates final stage at Homestead-Miami

William Byron led the final 58 laps of the Dixie Vodka 400 to earn his second career NASCAR Cup Series victory.

Hendrick Motorsports ruled the day at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as William Byron brought the team’s iconic No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane at the Dixie Vodka 400. Byron earned his second career NASCAR Cup Series victory, the 264th in HMS history. Hendrick is now four wins away from tying Richard Petty for the most wins as a Cup Series team owner.

Byron took his first extended lead of the race at lap 160 of 267, when stole the second stage victory from Martin Truex Jr. The win in the second 80-lap stage was settled in a single session shootout after Corey LaJoie’s down vehicle brought out a caution. Byron dominated the final 107 laps, leading all but the final eight circuits to secure his first victory since last summer’s regular-season finale at Daytona. His victory in just his third Cup race with crew chief Rudy Fugle, with whom he previously collaborated on seven wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

The win was earned shortly after the last caution flag of the day flew at lap 200 for a get-together between Aric Almirola and Ryan Blaney. Byron lost a few positions after the stops, but a strong restart allowed him to swipe the lead from Truex once again by lap 210, a lead earned through a push from his teammate Kyle Larson. He eventually built a five-second lead over the final laps to earn the victory, the first for HMS since Chase Elliott won the 2020 season finale at Phoenix last November.

Byron’s victory is also the first for Chevrolet after Ford and Toyota respectively took the first two events of 2021. Those races, each coming at Daytona International Speedway, put Byron in an early points hole. Wrecks marred the season-opening Daytona 500, as he lost separate cars in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying race and in a multi-vehicle pile-up in the main event. After finishing a lap down in 33rd last weekend on Daytona’s road course, Byron sat in 29th place in the Cup Series standings. He came into Homestead simply hoping for a strong run but departed with his first career victory on a 1.5-mile track. His best prior finish at such a venue was a fifth-place posting at Kansas last October.

“It was a tough start to the season, but we didn’t really think about that going into this week,” Byron said. “We just thought about executing a good race. It’s always nice when the speed is there, but I feel like we put in the effort to make sure it was, and it was kind of a flawless weekend really.”

With the win, Byron is now more or less guaranteed a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. He has reached the playoffs in each of his last seasons, each of those clinches came down to the last event of the 26-race regular season. He is the third different winner in three different 2021 events, joining Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell, who each won in the Cup Series for the first time.

“It’s going to be fun this year,” Byron declared. “I think I’ve spent kind of a lot of my Cup Series career kind of on the bubble of the playoffs and now I don’t have to worry about that. It’s crazy; I’m going to take all that stuff in, and just got a great team, got an awesome crew chief. It’s going to be a fun year.”

Tyler Reddick earned his second top five in as many Cup starts at Homestead, putting on a late charge to finish second ahead of Truex and Larson. Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell continued his surprisingly strong opening run with a sixth-place finish. This marks the first time both McDowell and his team, Front Row Motorsports, have earned three consecutive top ten finishes at any point in their tenures. McDowell and Harvick are the only drives to earn top ten finishes in each of the first three races this season.

 

  • Chris Buescher won the first stage and led 57 laps, the most a Roush Fenway Racing Ford has led since Greg Biffle led 58 at Talladega in October 2014. However, Buescher faded later in the race and wound up in 19th. The day was not a total loss for RFR, as Ryan Newman finished seventh in the No. 6 Ford.

 

  • Points leader Denny Hamlin sat on the pole, but was forced to start at the rear after making unapproved adjustments to his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Hamlin made it to the front by the midway point of the race and even battled Truex aggressively for the second stage win (drawing Truex’s ire over the radio) but a pit road speeding penalty forced him to start from scratch. Hamlin finished 11th and continues to hold a 20-point advantage over Harvick for the points lead.

 

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott is arguably the face of NASCAR. After breaking his Round of 8 curse, he’s ready to compete for a title to match his father’s.

Chase Elliott has literally driven a championship-winning machine during the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series postseason. In the opening at Darlington Raceway, Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet aesthetically resembled the vehicle his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson drove to the fourth of his record seven NASCAR titles. As the season ends at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC), Elliott’s traditionally blue numeral will don shades of yellow in tribute to the numbers that Johnson has represented on the Cup circuit since 2002.

As one era ends at Phoenix in 2002, another could potentially begin. Sunday will mark the final race of Johnson’s legendary career. A future in IndyCar Racing awaits him, as does de facto instant entry to NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte as soon as he’s eligible. The duel in the desert also marks the first race that can potentially end with Elliott hoisting the Cup Series’ trophy in victory lane.

Set to turn 25 in three weeks, Elliott’s NASCAR resume to date is one that many older drivers would give an arm and a leg for. He has earned 10 Cup Series victories, sat on the pole for a pair of Daytona 500s, won at historic Darlington Raceway at a mere 18 years old, took home the latest All-Star Race, won a Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series championship, and has developed a niche for road courses, winning the last four events at such tracks (a mark bested only by Jeff Gordon). Elliott is also the two-time defending winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, breaking the 15-year stranglehold the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. held on the title.

“I don’t know because I’ve never done it,” Elliott said in the leadup to Phoenix earlier this week when asked about his legacy. “I hate to say that, but I just don’t. I think it’s one of those things where you don’t know. I don’t know what it feels like or the emotions of it or what it would bring or wouldn’t bring or whatever because I’ve never achieved that before.”

“I just think to be thinking about those things and not the things that are going to make our car go fast on Sunday is just the wrong, in my opinion, my approach right now, is the wrong thing. I’m just all eyes. My mindset and focus is what is going to make you go fast. That is what matters on Sunday. That is going to be the thing that either gives you a chance or doesn’t. The rest of it right now just doesn’t matter. That’s where I’m at.”

Elliott’s success makes it almost a shame that his career is forever connected to legends of the sport. He’s been teammates with the semi-retiring Johnson since 2015, raced for Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide/Xfinity Series team (winning the aforementioned title in 2014). Of course, the first thing many know about Elliott is that he’s the son of Bill, a winner of 45 races on NASCAR’s national levels, the 1988 Cup title, and 16 Most Popular Driver titles.

“I’m very lucky. My dad obviously has had great success over the years, has been around this deal for a long time. Obviously, Jimmie is a great one to lean on, too,” Elliott said of the mentorship and help he has had over his career. “The big thing from talking to dad that I feel like he’s kind of mentioned is to just enjoy these moments because these aren’t things you can take for granted. You don’t know when your last race win is. You don’t what tomorrow brings. Nothing’s guaranteed, right?”

Elliott has more or less shut down the idea that nepotism earned him a ride at one of auto racing’s most iconic organizations with his performance on the track. The ultimate sign of perseverance gained throughout his time on the Cup asphalt perhaps came in the Round of 8’s finale at Martinsville last week. This de facto semifinal round had often served as a thorn in Elliott’s side, an impenetrable barrier to the status of a legend. But he not only led 236 of 500 laps in last weekend’s Xfinity 500, but both he and his team also overcame what could’ve been a disastrous visit to pit road to recover for a win. The No. 9’s jackman was initially penalized for jumping over the wall too soon, but his quick reset and the team’s appeal caused NASCAR to rescind the penalty. Elliott would take care of the rest, leaving pit road fourth and later passing fellow go-or-go-home racer Martin Truex Jr. for the lead with 44 to go.

No one could rationally fault Elliott for not earning a Cup Series title just yet. Some of the biggest young phenoms in the sport have struggled to get off to a fast start on the stat sheet…some never find it at all. Countless wunderkinder have been labeled “The Next Jeff Gordon” before fading away into racing oblivion. Elliott maintained early consistency, but it took more than two full seasons to earn his first Cup Series victory, finally doing so near the Finger Lakes at the Watkins Glen event in 2018. Being attached to so many legends of the sport only raised the temperature of Elliott’s pressure cooker.

Even in preparing for his first title, Elliott dealt with questions of the past. Irony has lingered over the No. 9’s pit box all weekend. Not only did Bill capture his Cup title in the same number, but it was a championship won alongside the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers…each of whom took care of their end of the bargain in the World Series and NBA Finals respectively.

Elliott is more than likely used to these questions and has adapted by smiling and taking them in stride. He was impressed with the Los Angeles championship connection. But refused to comment…if only because he hasn’t earned one of his own just yet.

“I feel like it’s so hard. I just remember getting the question of, What is it going to feel like when you win that first race? What is that going to be like? How cool is that going to be to you?” he said.

“I always had a really hard time answering that because I’d never done it before. So I don’t know. I think that’s the same answer now. Until you achieve a moment like that, that obviously is very meaningful to you, I think it’s really hard to put a stamp of what it means or how it feels or the emotions that come with it. I think I’d be speaking out of turn to really give you an answer because I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Elliott has spent his career becoming his own racer, writing his own legend. It’s partially why he hasn’t leaned on the seven-time Johnson for advice in working through championship weekend, though he did take time to acknowledge Johnson’s footprint on the sport by calling him a “champion on and off the track”.

Even if Elliott comes up short on Sunday, he has a bit of a failsafe comeback in that there will probably be plenty of opportunities for him to have another go at it. But if he’s unwilling to use his racing tree as an excuse or a crutch, you can guarantee he won’t be using youth. Elliott is all too aware that his first trip to the final four could well be his last.

“You don’t know. Hell, I don’t know what tomorrow is. I don’t think anybody does,” Elliott said. “To sit here and promise myself things that I can’t promise myself, I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball, right?

“I do know this is a moment you have to enjoy because you don’t know with your last race win is, you don’t know when your last day is, when the last Championship 4 is for you, all of the above. I’m just trying to enjoy the whole moment and make the most of whatever Sunday brings, put all the emphasis and preparation in the things that are going to give us the best chance on Sunday. To me, that’s my preparation for certain situations and probably most importantly the right decisions on the car to get our car balance as close as we can to start the race. All my emphasis is there, and just trying to enjoy and embrace this time, make the most of it.”

There are few guarantees on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit. Chase Elliott not looking for a crutch and an excuse proves a rare exception on the asphalt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson to return in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet

Reinstated from a slur-induced suspension, Kyle Larson will return to the NASCAR Cup Series in 2021, alongside HMS’ classic No. 5 Chevrolet.

Hendrick Motorsports announced on Wednesday that Kyle Larson will return to the NASCAR Cup Series in their rebooted No. 5 Chevrolet. Larson will be officially reinstated by NASCAR on January 1 after serving a suspension for using a racial slur during an event on the iRacing platform in April.

“Kyle is unquestionably one of the most talented race car drivers in the world,” team owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement from HMS representative Gabrielle McMillen. “He has championship-level ability and will be a significant addition to our on-track program.”

“More importantly, I have full confidence that he understands our expectations and will be a tremendous ambassador for our team, our partners, and NASCAR. Kyle and I have had many, many conversations leading up to today’s announcement. I’m confident about what’s in his heart and his desire to be a champion in all aspects of his life and career. Kyle has done important work over the past six months, and Hendrick Motorsports is going to support those continued efforts.”

Larson, 28, previously spent six full seasons in the No. 42 Chevrolet at Chip Ganassi Racing. He was suspended and later outright fired by CGR for addressing someone as “n*****” over the radio during a virtual competition streamed on Twitch. NASCAR issued an indefinite suspension and ordered Larson to undergo sensitivity training.

Since then, Larson has made efforts to atone for the incident, notably working with the Sanneh Foundation headed by former MLS and United States soccer star Tony Sanneh. Larson publicly spoke about the incident for the first time earlier this month in an open letter on his website and a televised interview with James Brown of CBS News.

“Mr. Hendrick is one of the people who extended a hand to me over the past six months,” Larson said in the HMS statement. “Our initial conversations were not about racing. He cares about me as a person and wants to see me succeed beyond driving. I can’t put into words how grateful I am for the commitment, the faith, and the confidence from him and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports.”

Prior to his departure, Larson had won 20 races across NASCAR’s top three national levels, including six in the premier Cup Series. During his suspension, Larson competed in several events on the sprint car and midget car circuits, earning many victories, including the United States Auto Club’s Silver Crown Series finale on October 18 in Springfield, IL.

Larson’s arrival at HMS will also herald the return of the team’s No. 5 Chevrolet, which last appeared in 2017 (driven by Kasey Kahne). The car won 38 races, including the first in team history in 1984 (when it was known as All-Star Racing) with Geoffrey Bodine behind the wheel at Martinsville Speedway’s Sovran Bank 500. HMS has earned 319 more wins since then, including 260 at the Cup Series level. The team has also earned 12 Cup Series titles, including one from Terry Labonte in the No. 5 after the 1996 campaign. Other notable full-time drivers of the car include two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch and Hall-of-Famer Mark Martin.

Cliff Daniels will serve as the crew chief of Larson’s No. 5 team. Daniels currently serves as the crew chief for Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, which will be piloted by Alex Bowman next season. Johnson has earned a record seven Cup Series titles (tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt) and is set to retire from NASCAR at the end of this season.

The reversion to the No. 5 branding spells the end of Hendrick’s No. 88, now driven by Bowman. This car began as a part-time research and development vehicle, first donning the No. 88 upon Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s arrival in 2008, the first year it ran on a full-time basis. Bowman took over the car on a part-time basis when filling in for an injured Earnhardt Jr. in 2016 (along with four-time Cup Champion and semi-retired HMS driver Jeff Gordon) before being granted the full-time ride in 2018. The No. 88 won 11 races for HMS, its most recent coming with Bowman’s win at Fontana, CA’s Auto Club 400 in March. Larson joins the modern Hendrick stable of Bowman, William Byron, and Chase Elliott. Byron drives the No. 24 car made famous by Gordon, while Bowman and Elliott remain eligible for the 2020 Cup Series title in the Nos. 88 and 9 respectively.

The NASCAR Cup Series is set to return to action on Wednesday afternoon, as the series seeks to complete the long-delayed Autotrader Echo Park Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Precipitation has prevented the race’s full running, with 52 of 334 laps completed on the originally scheduled date of Sunday.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Alex Bowman reflects while waiting on the playoff fringe in Texas

Even if his NASCAR playoff journey ends in the Round of 8, Alex Bowman is one of the year’s biggest winners through a powerful evolution.

With the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 trapped in rain-induced purgatory at Texas Motor Speedway, the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series have sought ways to entertain themselves as precipitation, mists, and chilly weather rocks the Lone Star State. Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney are engaging in virtual sparring on the links of their PlayStations. Joey Logano, locked into the group of four drivers eligible for a champion win in Phoenix in two-and-a-half weeks, told reporters that he was so racked with bored that he considered calling TMS president Eddie Gossage to ask if he could drive one of the massive trucks tasked with trying the track.

Alex Bowman, on the other hand, is working on his cars. Tampering with his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet during the weather delays is forbidden, but Bowman has instead spent his time ordering parts for a sprint car endeavor he showcased on Twitter last week. The vehicle bears the marks of Valvoline, one of his primary Cup Series sponsors, and was tested by up-and-coming sprint car star C.J. Leary at The Dirt Track on the campus of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It’s certainly one way to keep Bowman occupied. The driver mentioned to the NASCAR media gather via Zoom that he was out of clean clothes in his motorhome and had In-and-Out Burger and pizza for lunch (though he offset the meal with a visit to the track’s gym, located below The Speedway Club suites.

It was another form of boredom, the kind induced by the ongoing health crisis, that inspired Bowman to take on such a challenge. His team is in the early stages of such a process, but he proudly spoke of the new purpose in a media session brought upon by the continuing rains in Fort Worth.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Bowman said of the project. We went and tested on Friday and C.J. was really fast right off the bat, as fast as anybody that’s tested during the day there. We were going pretty good.

“I think (he) ran like 7-8 laps and had a ton of fun. We’re going to start racing it here soon and have lot of fun doing it. That’s why I do that deal: to really just have fun and no expectations. I have a really, really good group of people that help me on those cars. We’ve never lost a party when we go dirt racing, so that’s what we’re going to go do this winter.”

Adding the title of team owner would be a stellar way for Bowman cap off the 2020 refurbishment of his racing resume. The 27-year-old is currently one of eight drivers left in contention for the NASCAR Cup Series title as the 500-mile event in Texas sits in a wet holding pattern. His No. 88 team entered the race 27 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final spot in the championship four and seemed poised to at least partially whittle that margin before the skies opened on Sunday.

The Chevrolet started fifth but took the lead on lap 29 when polesitter and points lead Kevin Harvick got into the wall. It was a lead he would keep for the next 17 laps until the first precipitation brought out the caution flag. With pit strategies featuring both two-tire stops and ignoring a service visit entirely, Bowman has been scored in the 18th position since Sunday late afternoon, when the race was temporarily shut down on lap 52 of 334. The third attempt as resumption will come on Wednesday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Bowman is confident his team can continue to run upfront with the leaders as the season dwindles down. He will clinch a spot in the championship competition with a win, though one more opportunity will come next week at Martinsville Speedway. The championship race will be held at Phoenix Raceway on November 8. It’s the first time the Phoenix, a two-hour drive from Bowman’s birthplace in Tuscon, hosts the season finale.

“I was so happy with the race car. I was nervous going in, just because this is a place we’ve really struggled at in the past,” he said. “We’ve really only had one really strong race here. Was really just looking forward to getting here and seeing how the car was going to be, and it was just really good off the bat. So, that gives me a lot of confidence.”

The 17 laps Bowman led on Sunday was more than he led in ten prior visits to For Worth. His “one really strong race” was a fifth-place finish in this very event last fall.

Even if Bowman misses out on the championship battle, his entry into the Round of 8 has been the furthest postseason trek of his career. This trying season has also seen him set a new career-best in top-ten finishes (13) and post the most dominant effort of his racing career. Back in March, Bowman led 110 of 200 laps to earn his second career victory at the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, CA. Earlier this month, it was announced that Bowman would be the long-sought successor to seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the Hendrick team’s No. 48 Chevrolet.

Bowman still thinks that, despite the accomplishments, there’s room for improvement over his final three races in the No. 88 branding.

“Right now, I think we’re running great. The last two months or so have been really, really good for us,” he noted. “The summer was really rough and the beginning of the year was amazing. So, we’ve definitely had our fair share of ups and downs. But I would give our team a B+ or A-, just based on how well they’ve worked together.”

Bowman was as high as second in the standings (sitting in the runner-up spot after NASCAR’s return from the COVID-19 pause at Darlington Raceway in May), but went a tough summer (three top-tens over the next 13 races) shifted him to the middle of the pack. But the team has refound their swagger during the postseason, finishing no worse than 16th in the last seven completed events.

The fact that Bowman is even in this position in the first place is one of the more inspiring chapters in recent NASCAR history. A champion on the midget car circuit, Bowman got his first taste of major NASCAR racing in 2012, when he made his debut on the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series circuit. He would run a full-season the year after, taking over the No. 99 Toyota for middle-tier RAB Racing. Bowman brought the car home 11th in the standings and became the first (and only) RAB driver to post multiple top-five finishes. That finish was made somewhat more impressive by the fact that Bowman was released from RAB when his sponsor pulled out of its duties prior to the 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

After that successful campaign, Bowman felt he needed more experienced at the lower levels before advancing to the Cup Series. Several teams did come calling, but a tough financial bind forced him to cut back on his Nationwide efforts. He thus accepted a ride for BK Racing’s No. 23 Toyota, a microbudget team where merely finished the race was just as valuable as a win.

“A lot of teams called and only one didn’t ask for money. And I didn’t have any money,” Bowman said. “That’s where I ended up and it was (either) do that or sit on a couch. There wasn’t an opportunity to return to the Xfinity ride that I had in 2013. I feel like we really did a lot with a little in 2013 and outperformed where we should have been and did a really good job. We had a really good group of people and outperformed what we had financially.”

Bowman ran a full season at BK, finishing no better than 13th. He would then move on to another small team, driving a No. 7 Chevrolet for former Cup Series crew chief Tommy Baldwin. He’d mostly run at the back of the field, but he started to garner attention from NASCAR’s elite.

One of Bowman’s first fans included the man he’d eventually succeed: Johnson.

“I was pretty down early in the season and Jimmie Johnson was the first guy to come and talk to me,” Bowman said. “(He’d) just be like ‘man, you’re doing a really good job with that car’, just out of nowhere. I still have no clue why he did that. I talked to him about it a couple weeks ago and he was like ‘man, I just came up to lap you and you were completely sideways, driving the wheels off of it, and I felt like I needed to say something and tell you that you were doing a good job’. He was really supportive.”

The support of Johnson, as well as fellow former Cup champion Kurt Busch, wasn’t the only thing keeping Bowman going during early growing pains. A fight to survive, not even only for the sake of his racing career, was the strongest factor.

“I refused to give up. I didn’t have a backup plan, so I couldn’t give up,” he said. “I wasn’t like ‘oh, I can go do this and I’ll be fine’. It was like, ‘you’ve got to keep doing this or you’re going to have to find another job and another way to pay for food’. So, yeah I didn’t give up and I refused to let it beat me.”

That job became even more arduous when he and Baldwin parting ways, leaving him without stable racing ground. But his performance caught the eye of none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. The face of NASCAR would bring Bowman in to represent his Xfinity unit at his JR Motorsports team for nine races, seven of which ended with his No. 88 Chevrolet in the top ten.

Those numerals once again proved to be foreshadowing. When Earnhardt was forced to miss the latter stages of the 2016 Cup season due to injury, Bowman teamed up with Jeff Gordon to drive his Hendrick Cup for the remainder of the season. In his retirement speech the following spring, Earnhardt hand-picked Bowman to replace him in the Hendrick stables. Team owner Rick Hendrick acquiesced, naming Bowman the replacement two months later. He has since become one of the more consistent drivers on the circuit, reaching the playoffs in each of his three full-time seasons with HMS.

“A crazy set of circumstances to go from (the No. 23) to driving the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports,” Bowman admitted. “Driving for Tommy Baldwin the following year, that deal falling apart, then, driving the simulator and getting called to fill in for Dale, it was a pretty wild couple of years there and definitely a lot of very uncertain times and stressful times.”

Stability was supposed to come at Hendrick, thought 2020, his contract season, has proven to be one of the most unusual seasons in NASCAR history. But in the midst of unprecedented times, Bowman has made his own luck and has emerged from this trying campaign as one of its brightest silver linings.

Bowman may be bored as NASCAR continues to wait out the weather in Texas. But if a little boredom is the price of stability, a strong team unit, good health, and a chance to race at a championship, it’s safe to say that Bowman, a driver who hasn’t been handed a single thing in his NASCAR career, will run that race every single time.

Surviving at the Cup Series level used to mean racing cars to the finish on a wing and a prayer. Now, it’s a steady diet of In-and-Out Burgers and pizza.

Sounds like a fair trade.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott continues road course dominance on the Roval

Chase Elliott punched his Round of 8 playoff ticket in style, winning his fourth consecutive NASCAR Cup Series road course event.

The new sensation of NASCAR racing in the rain was countered with the familiar sensation of Chase Elliott visiting a road course’s victory lane.

Elliott defended his title at the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway, leading 27 of 109 laps to capture victory in the Bank of America Roval 400. The No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has now won each of the last four races held on road courses. Only four-time champion Jeff Gordon has done better in that regard (six from 1997-2000).

“We definitely don’t show up just expecting to be good,” Elliott said of his team’s road course dominance. “We show up trying to be better than we were last time. I thought we did that today. I thought our car was better than it was here last year.  I thought I was better than I was last year. Didn’t pile drive the barriers this time. That was good. (We were) able to finish it off the right way, which is always encouraging.”

Elliott previously took home the win at Daytona Internation Speedway’s road course in August after sweeping the traditional pair at Sonoma and Watkins Glen last season. NASCAR will return to that pair and the Charlotte Roval (half-oval, half-road course) next season, but NASCAR has placed three additional road courses on the 2021 schedule, including the Circuit of the Americas, Road America, and the course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But Elliott is more concerned about the upcoming Round of 8, as he tries to make his first championship round since making his full-time NASCAR entry in 2016.

“(I’m) excited to have the opportunity. I think it’s going to be a really big challenge for us to move on, as I think it is for everybody in this round unless you just have a bunch of wins,” he said. “I think today’s win is big.  Getting those extra five points can be the difference.  We just have to bring our A-game, push ahead, really try to execute three solid weeks.”

Elliott’s streak appeared to be in jeopardy after the second stage. He had finished second to Ryan Blaney, but a loose wheel on the ensuing pit stop forced him to revisit as the field went back to green, shifting him back to 38th. But a mere 30 laps later, Elliott had the lead back from teammate Alex Bowman.

He had to let it go shortly after with a caution emerging for debris on the track, but he later passed Erik Jones with 17 laps to go, holding it for the rest of the way. His final trek included another restart after Brennan Poole’s stalled car brought out another college, but he was able to clinch the victory by a healthy 3.895-second margin over Joey Logano. Jones finished third ahead of previous playoff clincher Kurt Busch, while Blaney, the winner of the inaugural race in 2018, rounded out the top five.

Elliott’s success echoed his endeavor from a year prior, when he overcame a wreck in the treacherous first turn of the Roval to capture the victory. This time, he dealt with the loose tire and rain in the forecast, forcing teams to use a special tire with more grip throughout the afternoon. Unlike the relatively flooded Xfinity Series event, the Charlotte rains were relatively calm throughout the race, though there will still numerous spins and on-track incidents that helped determine the rest of the playoff picture.

The Cup Series’ Round of 8, the last elimination stage before the final at Phoenix, gets underway at Kansas Speedway’s Hollywood Casino 400 next Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Defending Cup Series Kyle Busch was eliminated from contention. Contrasting pit strategies allowed Busch to take the lead with 19 laps to go, but he lost it to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Jones a lap later. Busch was running in the top ten before fuel woes forced him to pit on the penultimate lap. Busch is the first defending champion to miss the Round of 8 since elimination rounds were introduced in 2014.

 

  • Elliott joined Kurt Busch (Las Vegas) and Denny Hamlin (Talladega) as Round of 12 race winners who clinched through a race victory. Logano, Martin Truex Jr. (7th on Sunday), Alex Bowman (8th), Kevin Harvick (11th), and Brad Keselowski (18th) all joined them through points. Harvick maintains the series’ point lead, 13 tallies ahead of Hamlin.

 

  • Among those eliminated was Clint Bowyer, days after he announced he would retire from the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to join the Fox Sports booth. Bowyer lost his power steering early in the race, but still managed to earn a 10th-place finish. He was sent to the infield care center due to exhaustion but was checked out shortly after. Bowyer is one of five drivers to post top-ten finishes in each of the first three visits to the Roval (joining Elliott, Blaney, Logano, and Bowman)

 

  • Aric Almirola (16th) and Austin Dillon (19th) were likewise eliminated from championship contention.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Is now the right time for a Kyle Larson return?

Kyle Larson has been out of the NASCAR Cup Series since he used a racial slur in an IRacing event in April. Since then, Larson has been racing dirt and rebuilding his image. Everyone knows he was a successful driver. Larson has been to victory lane six times and was the 2019 All-Star Race winner. Along with a 2014 Rookie of the Year, Larson has the best resume of any free agent available. The thing is, is now the right time for Larson to return?

Will He?

Just a few days ago reports emerged that Kyle Larson was spotted meeting with Chevrolet executives in Philadelphia. The consensus is that Larson needs to repair relations with Chevy and NASCAR before he’d be cleared to sign with a team. He has already begun working on it with Chevy and it’s expected if he inks a deal, NASCAR would allow it.

The 28-year-old is one of the highest potential young drivers in the sport, and prior to his obscene language incident, one of the emerging stars of the sport. For a team to take a chance on him based on his previous success and popularity would make complete sense. The only thing that would hold teams back would be his reputation.

Yes, the slur used by Larson wasn’t okay by any means, but the situation fell into the laps of the sports media at a time when sports weren’t on the television. Networks and shows that would typically give very little if any time to a situation like this in the NASCAR world gave it a huge amount of spotlight. Analysts called for NASCAR to move swiftly and they did, getting Larson out of the sport.

Now, you can make the case the sport moved way too quickly on the decision and didn’t wait for things to settle down before re-evaluating Larson. Still, you can see how in a time of such social unrest, his comments as a face of the sport held immense weight.

When Could He Be Back?

Now, a few months later, Larson has had time to reflect and make a change. He’s begun to rebuild his image and now may be the prime time for him to do so. With Hendrick Motorsports looking for a talented and proven driver to fill Jimmie Johnson’s shoes, Larson sticks out amongst the pack. Compared to Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick, and other rumored targets, Kyle Larson is clearly the most talented. Larson is a proven contender in the sport and from a racing perspective is the perfect replacement for a legend.

 Sponsors need to sign on to represent a driver who would stand as a reflection of the companies image. The only reason I could think of for Hendrick not naming a driver yet is that they’re jumping over those hurdles. I personally expect to see Larson be tabbed as the next driver for Hendrick. 

NASCAR: Chase Elliott welcomes back fans with a win in the All-Star Race

As about 20,000 NASCAR fans descended upon Bristol for a historic night, Chase Elliott entertained them with a win in the All-Star Race.

NASCAR enacted all kinds of new features for its annual All-Star event. The race moved to Bristol Motor Speedway after over three decades at Charlotte. Door numbers on the competing machines were shifted backward. A “choose cone” setup allowed drivers to pick their restart lane. An “underglow” lighting system beneath each of the cars gave the race an aesthetic perhaps inspired by The Fast and the Furious.

But for all those changes, it was a familiar name that wound up taking the checkered flag.

Chase Elliott led the final 31 laps of the NASCAR All-Star Race, securing victory in the landmark exhibition event. He won each of the middle 35-lap stages after Ryan Blaney took home the first 55-lap portion before holding off Kyle Busch over the last 15-lap dash to set off the celebration. This the first time the event was held at a short track and only the second time in its 36-year history it was not held at NASCAR’s hub track of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“To me, this is one of those prestigious events that the Cup Series only has,” Elliott said afterward. “This is a special race on the schedule every year. There’s a lot of hype around it. The other thing about it is, you know, it’s something you have to race your way into. Luckily, we raced our way into this deal for life now. That means a lot.”

Ironically, the only other non-Charlotte All-Star event was won by Elliott’s father Bill in 1986 at Atlanta. The Elliotts, each driving a No. 9 car, are the second father-son duo to win the All-Star Race, joining the Earnhardts (Dale Sr. in 1987 and Dale Jr. in 2000).

Adding to the irony was the fact that Elliott, the back-to-back winner of the NASCAR Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, won when NASCAR welcomed about 20,000 fans back to the stands. It is the most populous sporting event in America since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Elliott revealed that he snuck into the stands to take in the NASCAR All-Star Open qualifying event

“To me tonight felt like an event again.  I feel like we’ve been missing that piece for a couple of months. It just felt really good to get NASCAR back,” Elliott said. “NASCAR is built on the fans. Once the race starts, it’s hard to engage with them because you can’t hear them. Before a race, the atmosphere was energetic again. I felt like the vibe was back. I felt like that fire and intensity in me was back even more so than it has been, a piece that had been missing.  I think that’s driven by the people, the cars pulling in, the prerace parties, and everything that you see.”

Busch came home in the runner-up spot, while Kevin Harvick moved up to third after opting for fresher tires before the aforementioned 15-lap stage. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five, while Blaney finished sixth after running the last 85 laps on older tires.

The Cup Series’ regular season resumes this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway with Sunday afternoon’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • With the win, Elliott earns automatic entry to the All-Star Race for as long as he races on a full-time basis. A Cup Series title is the other way to earn a permanent invitation. Drivers can also earn a spot by winning any points race from the prior season or the current campaign prior to the All-Star event.

 

  • Elliott’s win in the No. 9 Chevrolet is the All-Star-best ninth victory for Hendrick Motorsports. The team last won in 2013, the last of Jimmie Johnson’s record four victories in the No. 48. Johnson, set to retire from full-time racing after this season, finished 17th in his final All-Star Race.

 

  • Aric Almirola (9th), William Byron (12th), and Matt DiBenedetto (13th) each raced their way into the event by winning the three stages of the NASCAR All-Star Open. Clint Bowyer (15th) was also able to partake by winning the fan vote.

 

  • Tensions ran high in the open, as polesitter Michael McDowell got into the back of Bubba Wallace, sending the latter’s No. 43 Chevrolet into the wall. An incensed Wallace later left a piece of his wrecked car at McDowell’s hauler. McDowell’s No. 34 later made contact with the No. 37 of Ryan Preece, who spun out with the former’s teammate, John Hunter Nemechek.

 

  • New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara waved the green flag to open the main event. Kamara partook in 2015’s “Battle at Bristol”, when the track hosted a football game between Kamara’s University of Tennessee Volunteers and the Virginia Tech Hokies. Kamara scored a touchdown in Tennessee’s 45-24 victory.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags