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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Showman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team FedEx Fed Up

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

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

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

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

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

Martin’s Ville

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

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

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

Up Next

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

For full results, click HERE

For full standings, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine to 5

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

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

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

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

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

Chase’s Chase

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

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

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

Halloween gets scarier for postseason cusp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up Next

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson punches ticket to championship round

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

Everything’s bigger in Texas…including the victories.

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

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

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

The Fateful Eighth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postseason Pratfalls

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

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

Power of Penske

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

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

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

Up Next

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 5 Comes Alive

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

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

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

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

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

Chase the Past Away

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

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

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

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

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

Bye-ron

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

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

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

Up Next

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

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Guess Who’s Back

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Champions Fight at The Coliseum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almirola, Reddick, Busch, McDowell Awakened from Playoff Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. overcomes early penalty, wins at Richmond

Martin Truex Jr. clinched his spot in the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with a win at Richmond Raceway.

Joe Gibbs was always known for earning big wins near Virginia as an NFL head coach in Washington. That trend carried over on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Truex, driver of Gibbs’ No. 19 Toyota Camry, led the final 51 laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400 en route to his fourth victory of the Cup Series season and his first since the first race at Darlington in May. Gibbs Toyotas have won each of the first two Cup Series postseason races of 2021 after Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 won at Darlington’s opener last weekend.

Hamlin, winner of the first two stages of the races, finished second while Christopher Bell’s No. 20 allowed Gibbs vehicles to sweep the top three spots. Fellow playoff drivers Chase Elliott and Joey Logano rounded out the top five.

Truex Goes From First to Last to First

Truex began the 31st victory of his Cup Series career on the front row but was quickly forced to the back. NASCAR officials determined that he jumped the start, passing Hamlin (the de facto pole-sitter after Kyle Larson had to start from the back) as the field took the green flag. The No. 19 was forced to serve a pass-through penalty, though he was able to stay on the lead lap. Truex made his way back to the top 10 by lap 70 of 400 and took his first lead of the day nearly 200 laps later.

The Mayetta, NJ native didn’t agree with NASCAR’s judgment but opted to look at the early infraction from an optimistic lens.

“Two laps after I pitted or whatever, I was like, this is ridiculous, but I’m already last now, so there’s nothing I can do except for go forward,” Truex said after the race. “I don’t really understand what you’re supposed to do in that situation. I let the 11 get a nose out in front of me to get the launch first. I wasn’t going to jump him, and then he spun the tires and stopped. What am I supposed to do, stand on the brakes, and crash the field behind me? It’s ridiculous, but yeah, I got over it fairly quickly because that’s what it was, and we had to go forward.”

Truex historically struggled at Richmond prior to commandeering Gibbs’ No. 19 in 2019, earning only three top five finishes in his first 26 visits. Over five starts at JGR, Truex has finished no worse than fifth at the short track and has visited victory lane three times. Truex claimed that there has been no official turning of the corner, believing his Richmond revolution was an endeavor several years in the making.

Nothing really clicked. It wasn’t like one thing we did. It was just kind of a work in progress more than anything,” Truex said. “I’ve always felt good at this racetrack and had some really good runs years ago in other cars with other teams. Honestly, it’s more just great equipment, a great approach to the racetrack…Once we got in Gibbs cars and I guess 2016 is when we really turned the corner on being one of the guys to beat every time we come here.”

In that aforementioned September 2016 event, Truex, then driving the No. 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, united with his future teammate Hamlin to lead 382 of 407 laps but missed out on the win in an overtime finish. Since then, Truex has been the driver to beat at Richmond: over the last 11 events, he has completed all but one lap at the 0.75-mile, D-shaped oval.

“We certainly gave a few away here in the past, and to have three is pretty awesome. Feeling lucky to have great equipment, and always look forward to coming here.”

Buschwhacked

Unlike last week’s postseason carnage at Darlington, playoff drivers mostly stayed out of trouble at Richmond on Saturday. Postseason contenders took up all but one spot in the top ten (Ross Chastain was the lone outlier in 7th) and 13 of the first 15 slots.

Alas, Kurt Busch ran into trouble early on. His No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was running third when he lost his left-rear tire at lap 40, shortly after a strong pit stop during a competition caution period. Busch was the only driver who failed to finish the race, relegating him to a last-place finish in 37th. He goes into next week’s race at Bristol as the last of the dozen drivers eligible for the second round of the playoffs, trapped in a tie with Alex Bowman.

“Had a damn good car, feeling deflated by how it all went down,” Busch said on Twitter in response to his bad luck at Richmond. “I thought Virginia is for lovers, but not feeling the love right now. On to Bristol baby, and we know what we gotta do…let’s win!”

Bristol is certainly the place for Busch to secure a much-needed win: he was won a career-best six races at The Last Great Coliseum, second-best amongst active drivers behind his brother Kyle (8).

In terms of other playoff struggles, William Byron finished a lap down in 19th, placing him 18 points away from the 12th seed. A late speeding penalty on pit road relegated Michael McDowell’s No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford to 28th. The Daytona 500 champion is undoubtedly stuck in a must-win situation, as he’s 38 points away after the penalty and a wreck at Darlington last week.

The 5 moves to the 12

After matching fourth-place finishes in the first two stages, it was determined that Kyle Larson had earned enough points to clinch a spot in the second round of the postseason. Larson and his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team already had a sizable advantage in terms of advancement prospects through a series-best five wins and the regular season championship. He finished the day in sixth.

Up Next

The NASCAR Cup Series moves onto Bristol Motor Speedway next Saturday night for the final race of the first round of the playoffs (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Bristol’s famed asphalt will reappear, as the track was covered in dirt for the annual spring event, won by Joey Logano in March. Kevin Harvick won last year’s late summer event on the asphalt, uniting with runner-up Kyle Busch to lead 385 of 500 laps.

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney steals another as playoff field is set

Blaney’s second consecutive win came in the NASCAR Cup Series’ regular season finale at the hallowed ground of Daytona.

Ryan Blaney’s spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs was well-secured, but that didn’t stop him from going all-out for the win in the regular season finale on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

As the victor in an overtime finish, Blaney has won consecutive Cup Series races for the first time in his career after last week’s triumph at Michigan. The win at this weekend’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 makes him one of only four drivers to win at least three races this season, joining Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., and Alex Bowman.

Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford beat out several drivers who desperately needed a win to qualify for the Cup Series playoffs, which begin next Sunday at Darlington Raceway. As late wrecks dominated the final stages of Daytona’s summer event, Blaney took the lead from the winless Chris Buescher before holding off a final challenge from other trophy-seekers like Austin Dillon, Ross Chastain, and Daniel Suarez. Chaos eventually erupted behind Blaney, as one final wreck that took out several contenders shut down the affair.

Buescher finished in the runner-up spot, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Newman, and Ryan Preece rounded out the top five in the 400-mile event originally scheduled for 160 laps.

Blaney lingered in the upper half of the field for most of the evening, which was a mostly peaceful affair before desperation took over. The first two stages, 50 circuits apiece, were taken by Chase Elliott and Blaney’s Penske teammate Joey Logano. Blaney, Logano, and the other Ford Mustangs in the lead pack topped off on fuel with 37 laps to go. Chevrolets and Toyota were expected to pit shortly after but neither group made it to pit road when Garrett Smithley’s No. 53 Chevrolet spun, collecting Rick Ware Racing teammates Joey Gase and Cody Ware. The Fords jumped back out to the front of the pack while the other lead-lap cars pitted.

Two separate multi-car wrecks at laps 146 and 157. The latter saw Matt DiBenedetto miss out on his first career victory once again, as the 238th career start of his Cup career ended when he got together with leader Chase Elliott. Other notable vehicles involved included Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Christopher Bell.

That latter incident set up the overtime finish which allowed Blaney to capture his third win, as well as the second seed in the Cup Series playoff bracket, earned through victories and stage wins throughout the 26 regular season races.

Other big winners on Saturday were Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick. Larson (21st) clinched the regular season championship, which affords him an extra 15-point advantage in the playoff standings while Reddick (6th) beat out his teammate Dillon (18th) for the final postseason slot. View the whole Cup Series playoff grid below:

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup: Chase Elliott falls short in heroic effort at Watkins Glen

The fastest car in racing doesn’t always win.

That, unfortunately, was the case for Chase Elliott on Sunday, who finished second in the NASCAR Cup Series at Watkins Glen after a whirlwind race. Elliott was expected to start the race in 11th place; however, a failure in prerace inspection sent him to the rear to start the race. Additionally, Alan Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief, was ejected for the race and the team was docked 10 driver and owner points.

Elliott wasted no time making up ground, driving his No. 9 car all the way up to 8th place in 20 green flag laps for three stage points. He made a pit stop on lap 12 during the competition caution as well as another pit stop during the stage break.

However, Elliott was forced to make an unscheduled stop midway through the second stage. He flat-spotted his tires and was forced to make a trip down pit road, losing all of the time that he made up.

“[I need to] make less mistakes,” Elliott said. “[I can’t] flat spot the tires. That was ultimately the straw that broke it. It was my bad, completely my fault”.

Elliott fell many seconds behind the leader until the stage two caution allowed him to catch up. He was forced to start stage three towards the back of the field and race through traffic once again to catch the leaders.

With 15 laps to go, Elliott was within striking distance of leader Kyle Larson and second place car Martin Truex Jr. Elliott shaved nearly four seconds off Truex Jr. with eight laps to go, but lapped traffic gave Larson enough of a cushion to hold off Elliott.

“He was really fast,” Larson said. “[I was] just trying to judge the gap in my head and manage it and not make as many mistakes, and hopefully he wouldn’t be on my back bumper”.

Elliott’s second place finish at Watkins Glen is his third consecutive podium finish at the track, winning in both 2018 and 2019. He also scored his 13th top-10 finish of the 2021 season.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.

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 

NASCAR Cup Series: Larson blows tire on final lap, Bowman steals victory at Pocono

With four laps to go in the NASCAR Cup Series Pocono Organics CBD 325, Kyle Larson assumed the lead from Alex Bowman after Bowman jumped ahead on a late-race restart.

Three laps to go. Two laps to go.

As time was running out, Larson’s lead expanded, and it seemed that the driver of the No. 5 would be well on his way to his fourth consecutive Cup Series points-paying victory.

One lap to go. One turn to go.

And then: BANG!

Larson suddenly blew a tire, hitting the turn three wall hard, gifting a victory to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.

“It’s a bummer,” Larson said postrace. “At least we showed everyone that we were going to win another one and just bad luck took it from us”.

However, it’s a completely different attitude for the No. 48 squad, as Bowman’s good luck helped him secure his third victory of the 2021 season.

“This is the strangest win I’ve ever been a part of,” Bowman said. “I thought I was [going to run] 2nd, which was still going to be a good day for us with how we struggled throughout the course of the day, but then he blows a tire and we win”.

Bowman ran around 10th place for most of the day, but a late-race debris caution allowed him to advance to the front-row with the choose-cone rule. He launched into first place behind a push from Ryan Blaney and was passed by Larson with four laps remaining. Bowman regained the lead in turn three of the final lap to hold on for the victory.

“Our plan was to minimize our [final] stop and get enough fuel to make it to the end, and we did that with two right-side tires,” Crew Chief Greg Ives said. “12 gallons [of fuel] is what we needed, maybe a little less with cautions. We were lined up fourth on that restart coming to the choose cone, and he elected to take the bottom, and that obviously was the winning move”.

While Ives instructed Bowman to pit right before the end of Stage 1 for track position in Stage 2, Kyle Busch stayed out and won the opening stage fresh of his Camping World Truck Series defeat just hours before. Larson started the race from the pole position, but surrendered the lead to teammate William Byron on Lap 5, just prior to an early debris caution.

Just a lap after the debris caution returned to green, Cole Custer’s day ended early after colliding with Brad Keselowski on the frontstretch.

“It was just a tight hole [that I was trying to pass in],” Custer said. “At least we don’t have to wait a whole week and sulk about it, we can just go back tomorrow and get it done”.

Stage 2 was taken by the older of the Busch brothers, Kurt, for some much-needed stage points for the No. 1 team. Younger brother Kyle dropped to ninth, while Larson, Joey Logano, William Byron, and Ryan Blaney finished in positions two through five.

The second stage featured a trio of incidents, including a Ryan Newman spin on lap 54, a wreck involving Corey LaJoie and Anthony Alfredo on lap 61, and a blown tire off the car of Ross Chastain. Stage 3’s only caution was the debris caution to set up the dramatic finish.

With eight races until the playoffs, Kyle Larson leads the playoff standings with Denny Hamlin leading in overall points. Austin Dillon is the final driver in on points, while Kurt Busch sits 24 points away from the top-16.

The top-20 of Saturday’s will be inverted to start the finale of the Pocono Doubleheader on Sunday. That puts Chris Buescher and Michael McDowell on the front row after finishing 20th and 19th, respectively. Custer, Newman, Larson, Chastain, LaJoie, Alfredo, and Ryan Preece have had their backup cars approved, and will start Sunday’s race from the rear. Chase Elliott also has severe damage and is expected to switch to a backup car.

Race No. 2 of the Pocono Raceway Doubleheader begins Sunday at 3:30 PM Eastern Time on NBCSN. The Xfinity Series race will start at 12:00 PM, also aired by NBCSN.