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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For full results, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Showman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team FedEx Fed Up

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

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

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

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

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

Martin’s Ville

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

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

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

Up Next

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

For full results, click HERE

For full standings, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine to 5

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

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

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

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

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

Chase’s Chase

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

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

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

Halloween gets scarier for postseason cusp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up Next

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson punches ticket to championship round

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

Everything’s bigger in Texas…including the victories.

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

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

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

The Fateful Eighth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postseason Pratfalls

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

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

Power of Penske

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

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

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

Up Next

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

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 5 Comes Alive

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

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

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

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

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

Chase the Past Away

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

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

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

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

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

Bye-ron

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

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

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

Up Next

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

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Bubba Wallace earns first Cup Series victory at Talladega

Wallace earned a historic triumph when rain brought an early end to the middle portion of the NASCAR Cup Series’ quarterfinal playoff round.

Bubba Wallace disrupted the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture in historic fashion on Monday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500.

As the leader when NASCAR called the race due to inclement weather at lap 117 of 188, Wallace earned the first win of his Cup Series career. He becomes the first African-American driver to win an event at NASCAR’s premier level since the late Wendell Scott in 1963. Wallace, four days away from his 28th birthday, also secured the first win for the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota. The new team is owned and operated by Wallace’s fellow Cup competitor Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.

Rain disrupted the Cup Series postseason proceedings, pushing a Sunday event to Monday. The precipitation refused to let up, originally causing an 18-minute delay at lap 74. Once the race reached its midway point (lap 94), it became an official event.

After reaching the landmark under threatening skies, drivers knew that the race could be stopped at any point. Wallace took the lead from Kurt Busch at lap 113 and led what became the last five laps of the race. The event never went green again after a multi-car wreck took out William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, and Ryan Preece. An ill-fated attempt to dry the track was made, but the weather eventually became too much to bear, leading NASCAR to call a lid on the race weekend.

Wallace’s historic triumph completed a trifecta of first-time winners at Talladega over the past three days, as Tate Fogelman and Brandon Brown each earned their respective first wins in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity circuits.

Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Christopher Bell rounded out the top five. Points leader Kyle Larson was relegated to a 37th-place finish after his car was damaged in Justin Allgaier’s spin at lap 56, shortly before Chris Buescher took home the first and only stage win.

Bubba’s Big One

One could’ve said that Wallace earning his first Cup Series victory at Talladega was far too cinematic to ever come true. Not only is he a Mobile native but Talladega was the site of last summer’s show of driver solidarity after a rope fashioned into what was originally construed as a noose was found in the garage area. While an FBI investigation determined that there was no hate crime, drivers nonetheless stood alongside Wallace, pushing his car to the front of the starting line during pre-race ceremonies. 

Wallace, however, foresaw a fruitful visit to the superspeedway after promising results both there and Daytona. He led 16 laps during April’s visit to Talladega and wound up in the runner-up spot at Daytona’s regular season finale in August.

“I was sitting there reading over our notes, looking at our previous race here in the spring. I was like, man, our first stage average was pretty damn good,” Wallace recalled. I think we were like fourth on average. After that, we were like 15th to 20th second and in the third stage we ended up I think 18th or so.”

“It made me think about Daytona. We led some laps in Daytona in the summer, even at the 500. We lead some races early on, then kind of survived and get a good finish…For some reason, I had a feeling we were going to win. This was on Friday. I was like, we’re going to go win. (My wife) Amanda said we were going to win. I had a buddy of mine, Mamba, I told him I’m going to go out and win. I got it documented.”

Wallace went head-to-head with Kurt Busch, who will join him at 23XI next season in the No. 45 Toyota, and his team owner trying to work with one of his own teammates. With Hamlin’s semifinal status assured thanks to a win at Las Vegas last weekend, his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was pushing the No. 20 Camry of Christopher Bell to the lead. Bell could’ve likewise earned a ticket to the semifinals with a win, which would’ve been his first since the second event of the season at the Daytona road course in February.

Though Hamlin missed out on a JGR jackpot (Bell sits 27 points out of the final transfer spot), he was proud of what Wallace was able to accomplish, saying that watching the No. 23 team earn the victory was like “watching your kid succeed at whatever they’re doing”. Hamlin was pleased with the way Wallace applied lessons learned at prior visits to Talladega and Daytona.

“He made some big changes from Daytona (in February) and Talladega (in April) to Daytona (in August). I mentioned to him this week,” Hamlin, the eventual seventh-place finisher, said. I’ve just seen a transition with him, his willingness to take in information and apply it. I think this is not going to be the last time you’re going to be hearing about his name on a superspeedway. He’s very gifted at them. He has very, very good instincts.”

Shake Your Bootie

Monday marked not only Wallace’s first win in his Cup Series career but it was marked first such triumph for his crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker.

Barker had not visited victory lane since 2003 while overseeing the endeavors of another No. 23 car, that of Scott Wimmer’s at Bill Davis Racing. The pair won four races en route to a third-place finish in the Busch (now Xfinity) Series standings the year prior, but Barker, despite developing a strong reputation across the sport, was still seeking his first win in 483 Cup Series starts. Barker originally joined 23XI in a behind-the-scenes role but was asked to return to the pit box three races ago, replacing Mike Wheeler (now 23XI’s Director of Race Competition). Barker’s last work as a crew chief came in 2018 with Riley Herbst’s ARCA team.

Working with Wallace required little reconditioning for Barker, who was familiar with his new driver. Barker was attracted to the sheer number of resources available to him at 23XI…and that included its original driver.

“I enjoy the situation I’m in. I enjoy working with Bubba. I feel like he has a lot of upside (and) a lot of potential,” Barker said of Wallace. “My main focus was to make sure the team, the strength of the team, was brought to bear. In other words, I didn’t do anything to inhibit us, make no mistakes, put us in a position to succeed has been my main focus. I knew Bubba could get it done. I knew we had the stuff and the people to support him to knock it out.”

Though it wasn’t their first win, Wallace and Barker’s collaboration ended one of the more dubious, hidden losing streaks in NASCAR history. Primary sponsor McDonald’s, which first entered the sport in 1973, sent a car to victory lane for the first since Jimmy Spencer’s July 1994 triumph, also at Talladega.

Hendrick Horrors

23XI became the first team to win a Cup Series race in its debut season since Hendrick Motorsports, who has sent four representatives in the Round of 12. If anyone wanted the rains to stop, it was that cursed quartet, whose best finishing Chevrolet was Chase Elliott’s No. 9 in 18th.

Larson wound up four laps down in 37th after his No. 5 Chevrolet clipped Allgaier’s spinning No. 77, ruining his handling for the rest of the afternoon. His position only partly improved thanks to his teammate Alex Bowman dropping to 38th after he was involved in a hard wreck that also took out Tyler Reddick. Byron’s unfortunate involvement in DiBenedetto and Preece’s incident doomed him to 36th.

While Larson’s prior endeavors built him a solid cushion (his lead above the cutoff is down to 22 points but he’s second place behind only Hamlin), Byron (44 points back) and Bowman (52) are in undeniable must-win situations if they plan on keeping their championship dreams alive.

Up Next

The NASCAR Cup Series’ Round of 12 concludes next Sunday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the track’s famous “Roval” (part-oval, part-road course) will host the event that determines the eight-driver semifinal lineup (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Returning to the Roval is music to Elliott’s ears: the defending series champion has won each of the last two visits. Elliott is currently the last driver eligible for the semifinal round, as his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leads its new rival, 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick, by eight points.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin hits the jackpot via playoff win in Vegas

Hamlin led the final 39 laps to secure not only his first win at Las Vegas but advancement to the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs’ Round of 8.

With the wild cards of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval looming, Denny Hamlin found stability and fortune in Las Vegas, of all places.

Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led 137 of the 267 laps of the NASCAR Cup Series’ South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday night, earning his first career win in 20 starts in Sin City. The No. 11 team now earns automatic advancement to the third round of the Cup Series playoffs, which will slice the field from 12 to eight drivers en route to the four-car final at Phoenix.

Vegas yielded Hamlin’s second win of the season and the 46th of his career, tying him for 14th-most all-time with NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker. His first at Darlington, earned three weeks prior, allowed him to advance to the ongoing Round of 12. Hamlin is seeking an elusive Cup Series title to round off an accomplished NASCAR resume.

Hamlin held off a late challenge from defending series champion Chase Elliott to win the race by a 0.442-second margin. His JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. finished third and fourth while another playoff driver, Ryan Blaney, rounded out the top five.

Hamlin It Up

His lack of a Cup Series championship aside, Hamlin has hoisted nearly every kind of trophy there is to raise in a career dating back to 2004.

Las Vegas, however, often presented a challenge for Hamlin. The renowned driver was a bit of a bore in The Entertainment Capital of the World, earning nine top-ten finishes in 19 prior starts entering Sunday night’s event.

Hamlin made it clear that Sunday night would be a different story right from the get-go: he took the lead from Blaney eight laps in and held for the next 37 circuits. He soon had to deal with the titans of Hendrick Motorsports, namely Elliott and Kyle Larson. The latter won the first of two 81-lap stages, but differing pit strategies allowed Hamlin to take advantage in the latter.

A strong pit top allowed Hamlin to retain the lead after stage two, first holding off a challenge from eliminated playoff driver Tyler Reddick before the last cycle of green flag pit stops. Hamlin emerged with a healthy lead before lapped traffic let Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet close in. It wasn’t enough as Hamlin took home his first win in Nevada.

“It’s another track we can cross off the list. There was a point here where I never thought I would even sniff a victory,” Hamlin said of winning in Las Vegas. ”

“The team has found a setup that has worked with my driving style,” Hamlin said afterward. “I know that me and (crew chief Chris Gabehart) really work hard on trying to shore up any deficiencies that we have or I have as a driver go to work on it, the team goes to work on what they need to give me to go fast. I try to give them the best information that I can. They take that information, they put their brains together and they come up with something that works.”

Hamlin held the regular season points lead for a majority of the year but lost out to Larson thanks to a lack of wins. With two triumphs in the last four events, some might believe that Hamlin may have reclaimed the title of the favorite.

But Hamlin was in no mood to play games of hypotheticals and predictions. As someone who has prided himself solely on results…having worked amongst the championship four in each of the last three seasons…Hamlin is focused only on reality.

“I don’t care. Nothing matters. You have to play the game,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who’s the favorite. You have to play.”

Chase leads Hendrick’s Chase

Hendrick Motorsports vehicles went a roller-coaster evening rife with emotions and wagers that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the many nearby casinos. Larson’s decision to stay out toward the end of the second stage ended his prospects of victory, though he was able to race back to 10th.

Fellow HMS drivers William Byron and Alex Bowman weren’t so lucky. Byron started from the rear of the field after his No. 24 Chevrolet failed inspection twice. He raced his way toward the front of the field and even took the lead from Larson at lap 92. Alas, he was forced to make two pit stops over the final 50 laps due to a flat tire while running fifth with 42 laps to go. Bowman’s No. 48 likewise had to make a late pit stop due to a punctured tire, doing so 13 laps before Byron.

Byron finished 18th and sits four points behind Brad Keselowski for the final advancing spot. Bowman came home 22nd and is 13 points behind the cutoff.

Elliott, on the other hand, managed to finish second and sliced into a healthy Hamlin need by successfully navigating through lapped cars. Unlike Larson, Elliott was able to get around the leader Hamlin to remain on the lead lap at the end of the second stage. The defending series champion believed that made the difference in ending the day on a high note.

“Circumstances kind of went our way. We were able to get back on the lead lap when that cycle stopped. We were there in the middle with those guys making it on fuel,” Elliott said. “We were on the fortunate end because we got back on the lead lap, didn’t have to wave or get the Lucky Dog.”

8er’s gonna 8

Hamlin’s biggest competition in the early portions of the final stage was Reddick, who missed out on an invitation to the Round of 12 by two points at Bristol last weekend. The No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet hounded Hamlin for the first half of the final 107-lap segment before he lost track position in lapped traffic. Delaying his final green flag pit stop came back to haunt Reddick in the end, as he faded from contention shortly after. He was nonetheless the best finisher amongst the non-playoff contenders and one of two in the top ten (the other being Kurt Busch in 8th).

“I think at worst we were a third-place car and should have been competing for the win at the end,” Reddick said, per Chris Estrada of NBC Sports. “There weren’t a ton of cautions during the race and unfortunately waiting just a couple of laps from when (Denny Hamlin) pitted from the lead cost us valuable track position. A sixth-place finish is still a great night for our Richard Childress Racing team and we will now turn our focus to Talladega.”

Gase sent to hospital after hard wreck

The only yellow flag for an on-track incident came at lap 93, when Joey Gase’s No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet completely lost a left rear tire. Gase endured a heavy impact with the wall in Turn 2, ending his night early. He was transferred to a local hospital and has since been evaluated and released. Gase will undergo further tests in Charlotte. Sunday marked his 11th race in an RWR vehicle this season.

What’s Next

Unpredictability reigns over the next two playoff races. Before the Round of 12 wraps at Charlotte’s part-oval, part-road course, 188 laps lie ahead at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Nothing more needs to be said about Talladega’s propensity for huge wrecks and tightly packed racing, traits that have made it the perfect site for the halfway mark of the playoffs.

Only Hamlin will venture to Alabama with a sense of safety and security: not only did his win at Las Vegas reserve his spot into the semifinals but he’s the defending winner of Talladega’s fall event.

“From my standpoint, it’s a free pass to go there and try to lead every lap, win the race,” Hamlin said of his strategy for Talladega and Charlotte. “I’m still professional. I still want to go out there and win the next two weeks. There is no reason for us to take any weeks off. We don’t take any weeks off. We were battling for the regular-season championship for the last 10 weeks of the regular season. We’ve been in Playoff mode for quite a while now. I’m more looking forward to it now than worrying about all the what-ifs of what can happen that can take you out.”

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: Denny Hamlin avoids playoff chaos, finally earns a win in 2021

Denny Hamlin got the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs off to a strong start, capturing his first win of 2021 as other contenders faltered.

The Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is no longer considered NASCAR’s “throwback” race, that honor instead being bestowed to the legendary track’s spring event. Sunday night’s winner, however, provided perfect throwback vibes as a victory lane staple finally got to hoist another trophy.

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, finally earned his first race of 2021, holding off championship favorite Kyle Larson to win the opening race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Hamling stood atop the regular season standings for most of the year, but his lack of victories allowed Larson to take over.

As several other playoff contenders dropped out due to on-track incidents, Hamlin stayed out of trouble and held off a furious last-lap push from Larson to secure the win, his fourth at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”. Hamlin also earned automatic advancement to the second round of the Cup Series playoffs, which began with 16 drivers on Saturday night. The bottom four in the playoff grid will be eliminated after the upcoming race at Bristol on Sept. 18.

Non-playoff driver Ross Chastain finished third, while Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

FedEx Toyota finally delivers a win

Hamlin winning the regular season title seemed like a certainty, as he sat atop the points standings for nearly six months despite failing to visit victory lane. Entering last season’s playoffs, Hamlin and the No. 11 group had won six races before appearing amongst the championship-contending quartet in Phoenix. He maintained general consistency throughout this season (he remains the only driver in the Cup Series that has run and finished all 27 races) but saw his points lead evaporate thanks to Larson’s five victories in his return to the circuit.

The streak finally ended on Sunday night at a familiar locale. He needed no guidance toward victory lane, as he earned his fourth career victory at the legendary Darlington. That breaks a tie with Harvick for the most amongst active drivers and he becomes the eighth driver to win at least four times at a locale that has hosted NASCAR events since 1950.

Hamlin won the first of two 115-lap stages and was running second before some late damage at the end of the latter shuffled him to fourth. The No. 11 crew earned a chance to set up Hamlin for a victory when pole sitter Ryan Blaney’s spin at lap 318 of 367 brought out the caution. Hamlin beat out Chastain for the lead and then secured it for good on the restart.

“We had so many opportunities earlier this year to win races…For us, it certainly is significant,” Hamlin said of his win. “I’m not going to downplay the significance of it. It’s not just another win. This one is big for us and our team and the momentum.”

The No. 11 team now has a pair of consequence-free opportunities to tinker with their Camry before the playoff field is sliced down to a dozen.

“We didn’t have the playoff points that certainly we wish we had going into these playoffs,” he continued. “There was no room for error. And now to punch our ticket to the next round, we get to go out there and focus on getting through that second round, which I think is probably the most dangerous.”

Drive Stuck at Five

Eager to earn another win, Larson gave Hamlin everything he could handle on the final lap. Catching up to the No. 11 by running close to Darlington’s famous wall, eventually getting too close for comfort on the final lap. His No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet crossed the start/finish line in a shower of sparks but managed to finish second.

“We got to the white, and I was like, well, I haven’t been able to gain on him now, I’m going to try something,” Larson said with a smile, admitting he went for the video game-style finish. “Honestly got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside, but gave (him) everything I had.”

Larson nonetheless owns a healthy 80-point lead above the 12th spot occupied by Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman, a lead built through a series-best five victories and the 15-tally bonus offered to him through winning the regular season title.

Ross Is Boss Amongst the Remainders

Chastain missed out on the Cup Series playoffs but nearly disrupted the postseason party on Sunday night. His No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was leading at the time of Blaney’s spin after a strong green flag pit stop situated him in front of Larson with 67 laps to go.

Chastain and his teammate Kurt Busch are looking to send CGR out on a strong note. The team is set to shut down its NASCAR operations at the end of the season, having sold its assets to Trackhouse Racings (where Chastain will drive the No. 1 Chevrolet next season). Busch, the current driver of the No. 1, is seeking his second Cup Series title. He led 13 laps on Sunday and finished sixth to establish a 26-point lead ahead of the cutoff.

“This McDonald’s car, I think it was the fastest car here tonight,” Chastain said. “It’s humbling to come with this CGR group these final 10 races here, a place where my career kind of took a totally different trajectory three years ago and to have people like Clover and the Moose (Fraternity) and Advent Health on board supporting me and still letting me race three years later, it means the world. I’ve just got to clean up some more, though.”

Lady in Black Scorns Playoff Drivers

Darlington lived up to its reputation as The Track Too Tough to Tame, claiming the vehicles of several playoff drivers…

  • Larson’s runner-up finish salvaged a brutal night for Hendrick Motorsports: Bowman made contact with the wall at lap 16, damaging teammate William Byron’s car in the process. Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet failed to finish after a blow tired put him into the wall at lap 200, dropping him to 34th in the final running order and 15th in the playoff standings, nine points behind Reddick and Bowman’s cutoff. Bowman’s No. 48 Chevrolet finished the race in 26th, four laps down.

 

  • Defending series champion Chase Elliott, another HMS rep, was not immune to the struggles. His No. 9 Chevrolet was forced to make another stop after clipping a tire being held by a crew member from James Davison’s No. 53 stall at lap 28. Like Byron, a downed tire ruined Elliott’s day, as contact with Christopher Bell cost him his steering and relegated him to 31st.

 

  • Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell’s quest to shock the NASCAR world in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford was derailed by when he got loose coming out of Turn 2. His subsequent meeting with the inside wall pushed to dead last in 37th. Now 22 points away from advancement, McDowell may need another surprise victory to keep his Cinderella run alive.

 

  • Kyle Busch got loose in Turn 2 while racing Austin Dillon for the 12th position, putting his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the wall. A disgruntled Busch immediately went to the garage area and finished 35th, pitting him two points behind the cutoff.

 

  • Truex, the winner of May’s Darlington event, undoubtedly earned his top five finish. An unscheduled pit stop to fix a loose wheel put him a lap down before a late speeding penalty on pit road possibly cost him a chance at the win. Such a strong finish put Truex in third place, 36 points ahead of the cutoff.

 

  • Blaney finished 22nd after his spin.

Ware Released After Carbon Monoxide Scare

Cody Ware retired from the race early after reportedly showing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. His No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet was previously involved in a stage one incident with teammate Davison and spent an extended stay in the infield care center. Ware was in good spirits on Twitter after the race and thanked both the Darlington medical staff and well-wishers.

What’s Next

The second leg of the Cup Series’ opening playoff round comes at the short track at Richmond Raceway, where drivers will compete in the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). This will be the second visit to Richmond this season, as Bowman earned his first victory in the No. 48 Chevrolet, passing Hamlin on a restart with 10 laps to go in securing the victory. Kyle Busch is by far the most accomplished driver at the track, earning six Cup Series wins (his last in September 2018).

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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags