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 Xfinity: Allmendinger edges Cindric at the line, wins Food City 300 at Bristol

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Austin Cindric may not have had the best car all day at Bristol Motor Speedway, but he had it when it counted. Navigating through heavy lapped traffic, Cindric began to pull away from Sam Mayer and Justin Allgaier with his sixth NASCAR Xfinity Series victory of the season in sight.

All of a sudden — caution. Mayer and Allgaier had tangled up racing for second place, setting up a green-white-checkered finish.

AJ Allmendinger, fighting Cindric for the regular-season championship, got a great launch on the restart from the inside lane. He held his ground with Cindric all the way down the backstretch, the two banging doors in Turn 4.

White flag.

Allmendinger snuck past Cindric in the corner and pulled away down the backstretch and into turns three and four. However, Cindric had one final run off the corner.

Bang.

Allmendinger and Cindric slapped doors at the line, both spinning into the inside wall and then back up the track, collecting many other cars. The winner? Allmendinger.

Whether it was intentional or not, both drivers seemingly understood each other. The two were fighting for the regular-season points title and it came down to that one position. Cindric needed to win to steal the title from Allmendinger. Otherwise, he would’ve had to finish at least five spots above the 39-year-old veteran.

“I thought we had a really great battle all season long up to this point,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “I maybe shouldn’t have given up the bottom [on the restart]…..AJ [Allmendinger] obviously just drove straight through us. You have that green-white-checkered racing, but man, what a hell of a race. I tried”.

Allmendinger ran top-10 for most of the night but felt he didn’t have a race-winning car.

“We had about a fourth-place car,” Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “[We] got a chance on the bottom, and got in there and slid into Austin trying to throttle up and stay on the bottom.

“I expected to get run into. It happened in the previous corner. It’s frustrating to get hit that hard coming to the checkered, but we’re battling for the win. It’s Bristol baby! This is what it’s all about.

“You don’t want it to come down like that for the regular season, but it’s the way it’s going to be, and I expect it hopefully to happen in Phoenix, as well”.

Allmendinger’s 20 playoff points from Friday (five for the win, 15 for the regular-season championship) tie Cindric at 44 on the season. However, Cindric’s five wins act as a tiebreaker, giving him the No. 1 seed for the Round of 12.

Allgaier, Noah Gragson, Justin Haley, Daniel Hemric, Jeb Burton, Harrison Burton, Myatt Snider, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst, and Jeremy Clements fill the other 10 spots in the Xfinity Series playoffs.

The Round of 12 kicks off on Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

 

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 Cup Series at Darlington: Everything you need to know for Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders

Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway will be an unforgettable one. Thirty-seven of the world’s best drivers take to the track on the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Washington D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Many drivers will race with special 9/11 tribute paint schemes to honor the first responders and other individuals lost on that horrific day.

On the racing side of things, Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders is meaningful in the Cup Series playoffs. The event is the second of three races in the Round of 16. Denny Hamlin won last weekend’s Southern 500 and has punched the only ticket into the Round of 12 thus far. Kyle Larson sits 80 points above the cutline and needs two DNF’s to put his playoff hopes remotely in jeopardy. Martin Truex Jr. holds a 36-point advantage from the cutline and is seemingly safe to advance into the Round of 12. The other 13 drivers remaining in the playoffs are all still on the bubble.

Saturday’s race is 400 laps around the 0.75-mile oval. Stage breaks are at laps 80 and 235 with the fuel window estimated around 120 to 130 laps. Teams have four sets of tires for the 300-mile race.

Kyle Larson starts Saturday’s race from the pole position with Southern 500 winner Hamlin starting in second place. The entire starting lineup for the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders is below.

Starting Position Driver Car Number Team
1 Kyle Larson 5 Hendrick
2 Denny Hamlin 11 Gibbs
3 Martin Truex Jr. 19 Gibbs
4 Kurt Busch 1 Ganassi
5 Kevin Harvick 4 Stewart-Haas
6 Joey Logano 22 Penske
7 Brad Keselowski 2 Penske
8 Ryan Blaney 12 Penske
9 Aric Almirola 10 Stewart-Haas
10 Christopher Bell 20 Gibbs
11 Tyler Reddick 8 Richard Childress
12 Alex Bowman 48 Hendrick
13 Chase Elliott 9 Hendrick
14 William Byron 24 Hendrick
15 Kyle Busch 18 Gibbs
16 Michael McDowell 34 Front Row
17 Ross Chastain 42 Ganassi
18 Chris Buescher 17 Roush Fenway
19 Austin Dillon 3 Richard Childress
20 Ryan Preece 37 JTG Daugherty
21 Cole Custer 41 Stewart-Haas
22 Daniel Suarez 99 TrackHouse
23 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 47 JTG Daugherty
24 Ryan Newman 6 Roush Fenway
25 Corey LaJoie 7 Spire
26 Chase Briscoe 14 Stewart-Haas
27 Bubba Wallace 23 23XI
28 Matt DiBenedetto 21 Wood Brothers
29 Justin Haley 77 Spire
30 Anthony Alfredo 38 Front Row
31 Erik Jones 43 Richard Petty
32 BJ McLeod 78 Live Fast
33 Josh Bilicki  52 Rick Ware
34 Joey Gase 15 Rick Ware
35 Quin Houff 0 StarCom
36 Cody Ware 51 Rick Ware
37 JJ Yeley 53 Rick Ware

 

NASCAR: Kyle Busch fined $50,000 following reckless garage entry in Southern 500

NASCAR has fined Kyle Busch $50,000 following his reckless actions in Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Busch hit the wall after contact with Austin Dillon on Lap 125 and sustained severe damage. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver drove his car down pit road and through cones blocking part of the garage entrance following the crash. He sped into a crowd of crew members and team guests in the garage area and pulled up to his hauler before exiting his car and leaving for his motorhome.

According to NASCAR, Busch’s fine was due to a safety violation, actions detrimental to stock car racing, and violating the NASCAR member conduct guidelines covered in sections 12.1.a, 12.5.2.5.a, and 12.8.a of the rulebook, respectively.

Busch also had a televised interview after his trip to the infield care center in which he blamed his team for his performance and lifted the blame of the wreck off Dillon.

The No. 18 Toyota Camry now sits 14th in the NASCAR Cup Series standings, two points below the cutline with two races remaining in the Round of 16. Richmond and Bristol remain in this round of the playoffs and are both favorable tracks for Busch. He’s won a combined 14 times in the Cup Series at the two venues with over 30 combined top-5 finishes.

Busch will likely need two solid races or a win to advance to the playoffs. Fortunately for him, five of his playoff competitors finished 20th or worse to help minimize Busch’s poor Darlington race.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST at Richmond Raceway. The Xfinity Series will race Saturday afternoon at Richmond with a start time of 2:30 p.m. EST. Both races will air on NBCSN.

NASCAR: Kyle Larson second at Darlington after attempting Carl Edwards-esque video game move

Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson had by far the two best cars in Sunday’s Southern 500. The two drivers combined to lead 302 of the 367 laps at Darlington Raceway with both drivers completely classing the field throughout the race.

That being said, it was only fitting that the top-2 points earners this season, who just so happen to be great friends, were battling for the win in one of NASCAR Cup Series crown jewel races.

Hamlin beat out Larson on a restart with 36 laps to go and jumped out to a 1-second lead. Larson maintained a close distance behind Hamlin but couldn’t seemingly put together fast enough laps to cut into his defecit.

With one lap to go, Hamlin held a comfortable lead over Larson. It appeared that Hamlin would easily secure his first victory of the season to punch his ticket into the Round of 12 in the Cup Series Playoffs.

Instead, Kyle Larson decided to make it interesting. Hamlin ran an agressive line into turn 3 on the final lap when Kyle Larson came flying from behind him and into the wall. Larson tried to pin his way past Hamlin up in the top groove, but Hamlin blocked him to hold on and win the race.

“I got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run the diamond to be safe and I could [hopefully] squirt to his outside,” Larson told NBC’s Marty Snider. “I didn’t want to wreck him, I just wanted to try and get to his outside there. He did a great job of not making any mistakes there on that last run”.

Larson tried to pull a “video game move” notably made by Carl Edwards back in 2008. Edwards tried to slingshot below Jimmie Johnson in a race at Kansas Motor Speedway while racing for a win, but ended up unsuccessful much like Larson at Darlington.

Larson’s move almost ended similarly to another incident involving Carl Edwards. Back in a 2011 Xfinity Series race at Iowa, Edwards ran in second place to teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. With one lap to go, Stenhouse Jr. blew up and started dropping fluid while exiting the final corner. Edwards hit the fluid and wobbled out of control, plowing into Stenhouse Jr. from behind and serving as a winning push for the then-young star.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Saturday at Richmond Raceway.