NASCAR: Aric Almirola disrupts playoff picture at New Hampshire

Mired in the 27th spot in the standings, Aric Almirola nonetheless clinched a NASCAR Cup Series playoff spot at New Hampshire.

Faced with a win-or-go-home situation, Aric Almirola raced through chaos to clinch a spot in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs on Sunday afternoon-into-evening at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Braving a wet racetrack, a weather delay of over 100 minutes, and oncoming darkness, Almirola took home the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, his first win since the Talladega race in October 2018 (98 races ago) The race fell nine laps short of its 301-circuit distance, as rain and a New England sunset forced NASCAR to improvise.

Almirola, driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, had struggled all season after enjoying a career-best campaign in 2020. He was mired in 27th-place in the Cup Series standings entering Sunday, posting only a pair of top ten finishes over the first 21 events of the year. With 232 points between him and Tyler Reddick, the 16th and final playoff driver, and only five races left on the regular season docket, Almirola was clearly in a must-win situation.

He took care of that and then some, leading the final 20 laps en route to this third career Cup Series race and his first on a non-superspeedway track.

Sunday’s race was defined by early controversy. The event went green under overcast skies in Loudon and rain began to fall shortly after. Polesitter and leader Kyle Busch wrecked on the slick racetrack on the sixth lap, as did Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. Afterwards, the race sat through a 101-minute rain delay while the track dried. Busch’s No. 18 Toyota was deemed too damaged to carry on. The two-time champion was visibly agitated with NASCAR’s decision to start the race under the misty conditions.

Almirola’s fellow Fords took over after the race resumed, as the affair appeared to come down to Kevin Harvick or the Team Penske tandem of Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney. After the second stage, at lap 186, NASCAR announced that due to the setting sun and ensuing darkness, they would inform the drivers of a de facto 10-lap warning once conditions made a full finish impossible.

The No. 10 picked up speed over the final stage and led its first laps of the day with 55 to go, getting the best of Blaney in the last turn. Shortly after, the field was forced to come to pit road for the final service cycle of the day.

Another Ford, that of Matt DiBenedetto, tried to push his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing machine to the 10-lap notice but had to stop 28 laps from the originally scheduled finish. The gambit capped off an emotional week for DiBenedetto, who was informed that he would not be returning to the No. 21 Ford next season. NASCAR Xfinity Series standout Harrison Burton will take over the ride while defending Xfinity champion Austin Cindric will take over the No. 2 currently occupied by Keselowski, who is expected to move to Roush Fenway Racing. WBR holds a technical alliance with Penske and has hosted DiBenedetto for the last two seasons.

Behind DiBenedetto, Almirola did battle with Keselowski, who was looking for the perfect Penske parting gift. The No. 10 finally got the best of him as visibility dwindled. NASCAR gave the 10-to-go notice with 19 scheduled laps left, effectively wiping away only nine circuits. Despite some interference from the lapped car of Austin Dillon, Almirola managed to secure the win, holding off the closing No. 20 Toyota of Christopher Bell.

Penske Fords, with Keselowski and Blaney sandwiching teammate Joey Logano, rounded out the top five. Logano’s day was defined by an incredible comeback story, as he recovered from a penalty during the red flag process before making up the time to finish fourth.

Dillon might’ve had every reason to hold Almirola up. With Almirola leapfrogging himself into the playoff bracket, the winless Dillon is now the odd man out. Dillon is now five points behind Richard Childress Racing teammate Reddick with four races left in the regular season.

With TV partner NBC Sports broadcasting the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the NASCAR Cup Series will take a two-week break before resuming at Watkins Glen International’s road course on August 8 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kurt Busch takes home a family affair at Atlanta

After his team made a major announcement, Kurt Busch held off his younger brother Kyle to earn the 33rd win of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

With Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious mantra turned meme embarking on a relentless invasion of social media, it was only appropriate that Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series affair would take on a familial theme.

Kurt Busch, driver No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, held off his younger brother Kyle to win the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The elder Busch made the fateful pass with just over 23 laps to go in the 260-circuit event to become the 12th different winner of the 2021 Cup Series season.

“We beat Kyle! I taught that kid everything he knows; he should be grateful,” Kurt Busch jokingly remarked, per notes from NASCAR. “What a battle. What a genuine, awesome, old-school racetrack.”

Kurt Busch’s victory comes at a crucial time for his team. All properties of Chip Ganassi Racing, including equipment and characters, were sold to Trackhouse Racing on June 30, a sale that will fully take effect after the 2021 season. Trackhouse is owned by former driver Justin Marks (who previously partook in Ganassi’s defunct Xfinity Series program, winning the 2016 Mid-Ohio event) and philanthropist/recording artist Pitbull, who field the No. 99 Chevrolet driven by Daniel Suarez.

Sunday’s event at Atlanta was thus poetic in more ways than one: Kurt Busch may have had some assistance from teammate Ross Chastain.

As the Busch brothers battled for the lead in the final stanzas, they approached Chastain’s slower No. 42. While Chastain didn’t appear to actively block Kyle, he more or less mimicked his draft, cutting off his access to clean air. Kurt was thus able to get by and build a healthy lead before his brother made one last push to no avail. The final margin of victory was 1.237 seconds.

Kyle was reportedly upset with Chastain’s apparent interference but nonetheless ventured to victory lane to congratulate his brother. Afterward, Kurt defended his teammate’s actions. Chastain is running his first season in Ganassi’s No. 42, previously piloted by Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Kyle Larson.

“He did stop by Victory Lane and do the Kyle Busch grumpy. That’s what I expected,” Kurt Busch said of Kyle’s reply. “What happened on track was the perfect scenario for a teammate to do the work that he needed to do. If I’m running third, Ross isn’t part of the equation. That was exactly what a teammate needs to do, and Ross did that in a way that gave me a sense of pride in the education and the mentorship that I have helped Ross with this year. It was a perfect give-back.”

Chastain, who finished 21st, was among the first to congratulate Busch after he crossed the start/finish line. He’ll likely need a win to join the No. 1 in the Cup Series postseason as he sits 145 points out of the final playoff spot, now held by sixth-place finisher Tyler Reddick.

“Can we do that in the playoffs? No,” Kurt Busch said. “Can you do that in a regular season where one guy has won and one guy is trying to run hard? Today was a perfect scenario for that to unfold, and Kyle will get over it pretty quick.”

“I believe that no line was crossed, and it was that right finesse to make it happen.”

The Busch brothers each took home the victories in the first two 80-lap stages of the race. Kurt, the 2004 Cup Series champion, earned the 33rd win of his career to tie Fireball Roberts for 25th place on the all-time wins list. His return to the playoffs guarantees Ganassi at least one more shot at a NASCAR championship. CGR has earned 18 major racing championships (including nine in IndyCar) but none at the NASCAR level, its closest attempt coming in 2001 with Sterling Marlin (3rd).

Busch’s victory, his first since last September at his home track of Las Vegas and his fourth all-time at AMS (most amongst active drivers), also comes at the final NASCAR event at Atlanta before the track is repaved and reconfigured for next year’s visit. The old surface required repairs shortly after the end of the second stage, necessitating a red flag period that lasted about 20 minutes.

Martin Truex Jr. finished third, while Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on July 18, as the Foxwoods Resort Casino will be held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

For full Sunday results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott reclaims road course crown at Road America

Elliott’s seventh road course win is good for sole possession of third place in NASCAR Cup Series history.

It had been a long time since the NASCAR Cup Series descended upon Elkhart Lake’s Road America road course in Wisconsin. Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, made sure the uniqueness was kept to a minimum.

As the Cup Series held its first event at Road America since 1956, Elliott reclaimed his road course crown by passing Kyle Busch on lap 46 of 62 to take home the Jockey Made in America 250. Christopher Bell got by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to finish second while Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, another Gibbs Toyota, rounded out the top five at the 4.048-mile circuit.

The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion has now won seven races on road courses, good for sole possession of third place in the circuit’s history. Only Jeff Gordon (9) and Tony Stewart (8) have won more. Elliott previously won in May at the rain-shortened event at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. HMS Chevys also returned to victory lane after a one-race pause at Pocono last Sunday, having now won seven of the last eight points-paying events.

Elliott’s latest road course triumph was an uphill battle. During Sunday morning’s qualifying session, the No. 9 failed to finish a full-speed lap in the allotted window, forcing him to start in the 34th position. He was able to move up to 10th by the end of the first 14-lap stage (won by HMS teammate William Byron), assisted by some teams that pitted late for strategy purposes. The No. 9 led its first laps at the onset of the third and final segment, passing Matt DiBenedetto at lap 38.

Kyle Busch briefly got back out front when a majority of the field made its final pit stop under caution at lap 44, a sequence initiated by Anthony Alfredo’s spin into the gravel in Turn 1. Elliott quickly resecured the lead and coasted over the final 17 laps of green flag racing, beating out Bell by a 5.7-second margin.

At over four miles, Road America is one of the most daunting visits on the NASCAR circuit. But the only time the distance affected Elliott’s No. 9 group was through his celebration. Eager to greet the fans at every turn, Elliott indulged those in Turn 5 with a victorious burnout, one that wound up tearing up his tires to the point he not only needed a push from the track’s safety crew but an impromptu pit stop at the stop finish line so his winning vehicle could make it to victory lane. The joyous reactions from his crew, however, were more than enough proof that the extra work was completely worth it.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Quaker State 500 presented by Walmart (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

For full Sunday results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Busch good to the last drop at Pocono finale

Kyle Busch had just enough fuel to win the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ weekend doubleheader at Pocono Raceway.

It wasn’t pretty, but Kyle Busch ended Hendrick Motorsports’ monopoly on the NASCAR Cup Series in style on Sunday afternoon at Pocono Raceway.

Busch fought an ill-handling No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and saved just enough fuel in the final stages to win the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350, the latter of a Cup Series weekend doubleheader in Pennsylvania. The win snaps a six-race winning streak for Rick Hendrick’s team, though Kyle Larson, the winner of three of those races, finished in the runner-up spot.

“Even though we were in the back and behind and having to come through and persevere through being stuck in fourth gear, no clutch, all that stuff it’s all burned out…It was awesome today,” Busch told NBC Sports after exiting his car. “Great job to my team. Thanks to (crew chief) Ben Beshore. Thanks to Matt (Tyrrell) the fuel guy for getting it full. That’s a big important one today. Really great to take home another checkered flag.

Shortly after the halfway mark of the 140-lap event at the “Tricky Triangle”, Busch’s No. 18 got stuck in fourth gear due to transmission issues. Things became so dire for the JGR team that a crew member had to enter the car during the caution at the end of the second stage in an ultimately futile attempt to fix it. Busch retreated to the rear of the field while at the onset of the third and final stage, the first two won by Martin Truex Jr. and HMS rep William Byron.

The race turned into a fuel mileage struggle after the caution came for Erik Jones’ encounter with the wall at lap 93. Busch joined several others on pit road, seeking to stretch out one final tank of fuel over 47 final laps. The fuel window at the 2.5-mile triangle is often open for 42-45 laps.

Contenders dwindled as they slowly ran out of fuel over the final laps. Byron threatened to keep the HMS streak alive but was forced to pit road with two laps to go. The stage was set for a battle between JGR Toyotas, but Busch’s teammate Denny Hamlin ran dry on the final turn of the penultimate lap. Busch had just enough to finish the 140th circuit and capture the 59th Cup Series victory of his career. That gives him sole possession of ninth place on the all-time Cup Series wins list, breaking a tie with fellow Sunday racer Kevin Harvick.

Brad Keselowski led the most laps on Sunday with 31. He beat out Harvick for third, while Bubba Wallace rounded out the top five. Wallace’s finish is good for the first top-five/ten finish the history of 23XI Racing, the team co-owned by Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Independence Day, as the circuit makes its first run on the Road America road course in Elkhart Lake, WI since 1956 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Alex Bowman wins after Kyle Larson misfortune at Pocono

A Hendrick Motorsports civil war ended in heartbreak for Kyle Larson, whose teammate Alex Bowman sped off to victory.

Kyle Larson seemed well on his way to his fourth consecutive victory on Saturday afternoon at Pocono Raceway. The racing gods had other plans for him, but Hendrick Motorsports was nonetheless there to pick up the pieces.

Larson passed teammate Alex Bowman with four laps to in the Pocono Organics CBD 325, but lost a right-front tire on the white flag lap allowed Bowman to reassume the lead and earn HMS’ sixth consecutive team victory. The victory ends Larson’s personal winning streak at three races, but the No. 5 Chevrolet still managed to cross the finish line in ninth place. Bowman earned his third victory of the season in the No. 48 Chevrolet and beat out Kyle Busch, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Blaney, who rounded out the top five.

Saturday’s race was the first of the second annual Cup Series doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, with the latter race being run tomorrow afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

“The morale is obviously super high at Hendrick Motorsports. It’s really cool to see it that way. I think there’s not one thing,” Bowman said after his win “It’s each and every individual at Hendrick Motorsports from top to bottom in every department, it’s everybody at Chevrolet. Our engines are strong, bodies are great, chassis are great. The guys putting them together are doing a great job.”

Bowman lingered in the upper half of the field in the early stages of the 130-lap race while Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt, broke the HMS monopoly on stage victories. Kyle earned the first stage victory (25 laps) while Kurt took the latter after lap 77. Larson, Saturday’s pole sitter, reassumed the leap on lap 84 from Kurt. During the third stage’s round of green flag pit stops, Bowman inserted himself into contention with a two-tire stop on lap 93, which put him in the top five. A caution for debris on lap 108 bunched the field together, giving Bowman his chance.

Situated in the front row after the choose lap, Bowman warded off Larson and Kyle Busch to take the lead before engaging in a civil war with his teammate. Larson made what was believed to be the winning pass with four laps to go, but lost his right front tire headed into the “Tricky Triangle’s” third and final turn, allowing Bowman to coast to his third win of the season and the fifth of his career. Bowman, who succeeded seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Chevrolet this season, will go for the sweep tomorrow in the same vehicle.

“This is the strangest win I’ve ever been a part of,” Bowman said of his unusual victory. “I thought I was running second, which was still going to be a good day for us with how we struggled throughout the course of the day. Then he blows a tire, we win; can’t do a burnout because I have to race the car tomorrow. I typically stand on the roof of the car; can’t do that because I got to race the car tomorrow. I typically drink all the beers; can’t do all that because I got to race a car tomorrow.”

Larson’s bad luck cost him the honor of being NASCAR’s first winner of four consecutive points events since Johnson in 2007. He did secure his seventh straight top-ten finish but will start from the rear of the field tomorrow because the late wreck will force him to a backup car.

“It’s little bit laughable just because I can’t believe it,” Larson told NBC Sports in his interview after making the mandatory stop at the infield care center. “I hate that we didn’t get another win. It would have been cool to win five in a row. It just wasn’t meant to be I guess today. I felt something like right in the middle of the tunnel. I wasn’t quite sure what it was yet. (The tire) finally kind of shredded halfway through the short chute there.”

“I hate that we didn’t get the win, but cool that Alex still did, a Hendrick car with another win. Cool to keep (team owner Rick Hendrick’s) streak going.”

Race Notes

  • The top 20 of Saturday’s final ledger will be inverted to form the starting lineup for Sunday. Thus, 20th-place finisher Chris Buescher will start first next to Michael McDowell (19th). Buescher is currently four points out of the last playoff spot behind Kurt Busch.

 

  • The latest HMS victory comes days after the team announced that Jeff Gordon would become the vice chairman of the team. Gordon, a four-time Cup Series champion, spent nearly his entire career in the No. 24 Chevrolet now piloted by Byron.

 

  • Cole Custer and Ryan Newman each failed to finish due to their involvement in on-track incidents.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Kyle Larson continues dominance as NASCAR debuts at Nashville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kyle Larson keeps rolling, wins All-Star Race at Texas

An unconventional format and a hard push from Brad Keselowski weren’t enough to stop Kyle Larson’s NASCAR Cup Series takeover.

The NASCAR Cup Series’ All-Star break was no sanctuary for the continued domination of Kyle Larson and Hendrick Motorsports.

HMS’ No. 5 Chevrolet continued its take over of the premier racing circuit, taking home the million-dollar prize at the annual NASCAR All-Star Race, which was held at Texas Motor Speedway for the first time. Rather than points, Larson’s team takes home the seven-digit money prize traditionally bestowed to the winner. He would hold off a hard-charging Brad Keselowski over a ten-lap shootout to secure the victory, with HMS teammate Chase Elliott rounding out the top three. Larson is now one of eight drivers to win multiple All-Star Races, winning the last one he participated in (2019) as well. Each of the other seven drivers who have done so is a Cup champion, with another HMS legend, Jimmie Johnson, pacing the way with four.

“I think I felt him try to maybe take the air off my rear end to (turn) one once I got a little bit light getting into (the turn),” Larson said of his battle with Keselowski. “I could tell he was going to have to get desperate to do something and get a run on me, but thankfully our car was fast enough, he just couldn’t get those extra few feet.”

“Chase Elliott to me, is the most aggressive and best restarter, or one of the best restarters, especially from the front row, so that was, that was really cool (to beat him,” Larson added of the opening to the final decalogue before cheekily adding “To win a lot of money is awesome too.”

Larson has headlined a resurgence for the legendary HMS team, which has won each of the last four points races en route to passing Richard Petty’s Petty Enterprises for the most all-time. The No. 5 has triumphed in the last two and now takes home HMS’ record 10th victory in the All-Star exhibition. Elliott, the defending series champion, took home last year’s event at Bristol.

Sunday marked the All-Star Race’s first visit to Texas. The event was held annually at Charlotte Motor Speedway since 1987 but moved to Bristol Motor Speedway last season. NASCAR has not confirmed whether the All-Star event will continue to tour in 2022 and beyond. With his victory, Larson becomes the first driver to win the All-Star Race at two different tracks.

A unique format was used for the maiden voyage in Fort Worth, as the 100-lap event was broken down into six stages. Each of the first four segments lasted 15 laps apiece and the latter three featured inversions that shifted the field and created more opportunities for passing. The penultimate stage lasted 30 laps, with each participant required to make a green-flag pit stop prior to the 20th circuit. Elliott’s No. 9 crew earned the fastest stop, netting a $100,000 bonus. Starting position for the fifth round was determined via an accumulation of results over the first four segments.

“I actually kind of enjoyed it,” Larson said of the format. “I don’t know if this is a format that will work at every track, but I feel like for Texas it worked. I think the mandatory green-flag stop at the end was kind of cool.”

As the final stage loomed, it appeared that the exhibition would once again come down to an HMS civil war between Larson and Elliott. But Keselowski, the last driver to make his mandatory stop, held on to the lead when a caution flag (accounting for the spinning car of Ross Chastain) flew shortly after his service, his No. 2 Team Penske Ford serving as an invader to the monopoly. Though Elliott faded late, Larson held to secure the victory.

The NASCAR Cup Series resumes its season on Sunday afternoon, as the circuit will debut at Nashville Superspeedway for the Ally 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Chastain, who finished 18th, advanced to the main All-Star event by winning the first of three stages at the All-Star Open held shortly beforehand. He was joined by Tyler Reddick (16th) and Aric Almirola (8th), as well as Matt DiBenedetto (17th), who won the fate vote to earn the last invitation.

 

  • Keselowski’s teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five.

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Kyle Larson domination secures Hendrick Motorsports record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Race Notes

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

 

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

 

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott wins chaotic, shortened maiden voyage at COTA

Chase Elliott braved the elements and some early chaos to reclaim his crown as NASCAR’s road course king en route to his first win of 2021.

Chase Elliott’s rain-shortened victory at the Echo Park Texas Grand Prix was historic in several ways. Not only did the defending Cup Series champion win NASCAR’s first visit to the Circuit of the Americas road course in Austin, TX, but he also captured the 268th Cup Series win for Hendrick Motorsports.

HMS is now tied for the most team victories in Cup Series history, tying Richard Petty’s Petty Enterprises. It’s also the 800th victory for manufacturer Chevrolet. Elliott’s teammate Kyle Larson finished second, while Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, and AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top five.

Obviously that’s just a huge win on multiple fronts,” Elliott said after the race. “Win number 800 for Chevrolet. They’re a great partner to me personally. They’ve played a massive role in the success of Hendrick Motorsports past and present. They’re a great group to work with so I’m super proud of them.

“To tie (Petty Enterprises) obviously is (also) a big one. The boss has been on us heavy about that record. He wants that record. So super glad that we could help with that today.”

With Elliott’s win, each of team owner Rick Hendrick’s drivers has won a race in 2021. He joins Larson, William Byron, and Alex Bowman, the latter-most of whom won last weekend’s race at Dover. HMS vehicles swept the first four spots.

Hendrick has enjoyed his share of success in the Cup Series, as his 268 career victories have been accompanied by 13 championships, the most recent earned by Elliott last season. Jimmie Johnson won seven in the No. 48 now occupied by Bowman, while Jeff Gordon won four in the No. 24 piloted by Byron. Laron’s No. 5 hosted Terry Labonte’s championship in 1996.

But Hendrick has a strong appreciation for the current run, as there’s a possibility that his quartet could all be racing for a championship come November’s season finale in Phoenix.

“We usually had one or two (contenders). Jeff’s dominating, Jimmie’s dominating. Now the sport is so competitive,” he said. “But to have four that can show up and win any weekend, that’s a testament to the effort that all those people back in the shop are putting into this program.”

The win also allowed Elliott to reclaim his monopoly on road courses. He had previously won four in a row at such tracks, seeing that streak end in February at Daytona. Elliott has now won six road course races, tied for third-most all-time with Petty, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, and Bobby Allison. Only Gordon (9) and Tony Stewart (8) have won more. COTA is the second of a record seven road courses on the 2021 schedule, the next being scheduled for Sonoma Raceway on June 6.

It’s safe to say that this one at COTA, which often plays host to Formula 1 and Sports Car races, will definitely be among the most unique. Special rain tires were used as downpours struck the Austin area. Unfortunately, the tires did little to combat visibility issues that plagued the early portions of the race and eventually led to its cancelation with 14 to go in the 68-lap event. 

NASCAR has run full races on road courses in the rain before, including an Xfinity Series race at the Charlotte roval last fall. But several drivers were displeased after several violent wrecks plagued the first two stages. In a dangerous wreck that brought out a red flag on lap 25, Martin Truex Jr. slammed into the back of Michael McDowell’s Ford before his own No. 19 Toyota was plowed into by Cole Custer on the fast backstretch.

Six laps earlier, the days of Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, and Bubba Wallace all ended due to visibility issues. Harvick, who failed to finish a race for the first time since September 2019, minced no words about the situation. 

“It’s the most unsafe thing I’ve ever done in a race car by a lot.  You can’t see anything down the straightaways.  These cars were not built to run in the rain,” the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and 2014 Cup Series champion said. “We don’t have any business being out in the rain, period.  All I can say is this is the worst decision that we’ve ever made in our sport that I’ve been a part of, and I’ve never felt more unsafe in my whole racing career, period.”

Sunday’s race became considerably tamer as the rain let up. NASCAR also mandated single-file restarts for the rest of the event. Elliott took over the lead at lap 50, when several leaders (including Bowman, Chastain, and Kyle Busch) went to pit road. The No. 9 team projected that they would be unable to finish the race without making another stop of their own and advised Elliott to simply build a lead that would procure a strong finish.

The return of heavy rains led to visibility issues resurfacing and standing water in the backstretch, allowing Elliott to secure the 12th win of his career.

“I’m super proud just of our whole group,” Elliott said. “I feel like we really kind of persevered through multiple challenges today. I didn’t think we started the day off great, but we were able to kind of fight back, get to where we had a lot of pace there at the end. I’m really proud of that.”

Prior to Elliott’s statements, NASCAR announced that Hendrick and Petty would sign and auction off part of Elliott’s No. 9 car from the race with proceeds benefitting the Victory Junction Gang, a charity that aids terminally ill children. The charity was formed by Petty and his son Kyle in honor of fourth-generation racer Adam Petty, who tragically perished at the age of 19 in a crash during a 2000 practice run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns next Sunday for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. ET, Fox). This Memorial Day Weekend tradition is the longest event on the NASCAR circuit at 600 miles (400 laps around the 1.5-mile oval).

Race Notes

  • Alas for HMS, the early stoppage caused one streak to come to an end. Coming home 11th, Byron saw his streak of consecutive top ten finishes severed at 11.

 

  • Allmendinger’s fifth-place finish was the best in five races for Kaluig Racing. He is currently competing for an Xfinity Series title for Kaulig, sitting third in the standings. Allmendinger’s lone Cup Series win came with JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 in 2014 at Watkins Glen.

 

  • Rookie Chase Briscoe posted his best career finish in sixth.

 

  • Sunday’s starting lineup was set by traditional qualifying, which has mostly been cast aside to compact race weekends into a single day during the ongoing health crisis. Tyler Reddick earned his first career pole with a time of 2:12.911.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags