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: Ryan Blaney steals another as playoff field is set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney holds off powers of Hendrick to win at Michigan

With his win at Michigan, Ryan Blaney has now won multiple NASCAR Cup Series races in a single season for the first time in his career.

Faced with a challenge from Hendrick Motorsports’ finest, Ryan Blaney made sure that Sunday’s Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway was, instead, Penske material.

Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford took advantage of a late restart, taking his first lead of the day at lap 193 of 200. He then held off a furious rally from the HMS duo of William Byron and Kyle Larson long enough to earn his second win of the season and first since Atlanta in March. Blaney held off Byron by 0.077 seconds to secure the win and his first multi-victory season at the Cup level. Larson, leader of a race-high 70 laps, finished third while Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.

Blaney started the afternoon in the third spot but quickly fell out of the top 15. His descent allowed HMS Chevrolets to take over. Chase Elliott won the first 60-lap stage in his No. 9 Chevrolet. Kyle Busch won the second stage for Joe Gibbs Racing but Elliott (8th), Byron, and Larson united to lead 136 of 200 laps. After Elliott faded after the second stage (pitting twice within 13 laps for tires), Byron and Larson appeared to do battle for the final victory.

Two late caution flags, however, set up late dramatics. A brief stop for rain set up a 16-lap shootout which was interrupted by a multi-car get-together that took out Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Christopher Bell, and Josh Berry (who was subbing for Corey LaJoie in the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet due to COVID-19 protocols). Blaney was situated in the fourth spot when the race went green again with eight to go after the chaos.

Using a strong push from Kyle Busch (7th), Blaney managed to clear the front row of Byron and Kurt Busch to secure the lead. He then held off Hendrick’s finest, denying them their 12th victory of the season. Blaney also allowed the Ford Motor Company to keep a dominant streak at MIS alive. Those repping the blue oval have now won seven straight races in Brooklyn.

Sunday’s race at Michigan was the penultimate race of the NASCAR Cup Series’ regular season. All but one spot in the 16-seed playoff field has been clinched as Kevin Harvick (14th) secured his spot on points. One final spot is up for grabs at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the famed Daytona International Speedway on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, NBC).

Tyler Reddick (29th) missed an opportunity to expand his hold on the final seed after his teammate Austin Dillon (36th) was involved in a wreck after stage two ended, as contact with Brad Keselowski put him into the wall. Reddick leads Dillon by 22 points for the final spot, though he would lose it if a winless driver inside the top 30 in points managed to win at Daytona.

For full results, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: A.J. Allmendinger wins wild debut on Indianapolis road course

The NASCAR Cup Series’ first race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course featured an upset win mired by late calamities.

Late carnage yielded an unlikely winner at the NASCAR Cup Series’ maiden voyage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.

After the first 70-plus laps of Sunday’s Verizon 200 ran without major incident, a curb of calamity in the sixth turn took out numerous contenders in violent wrecks. In the end, it was A.J. Allmendinger, a NASCAR Xfinity Series regular running a part-time schedule that stole the victory in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet. It’s the first win for Kaulig, an Xfinity team that is set to make the leap to the premier Cup Series next year, and Allmendinger’s first Cup win since August 2014 at Watkins Glen.

Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Matt DiBenedetto rounded out the top five.

Sunday marked the Cup Series’ first road course endeavor at the legendary IMS, having run on its famous oval annually since 1994. Rumble strip curbs, made to prevent drivers from going into the trackside infield, in Turn 6 caused some trouble in yesterday’s Xfinity Series race. NASCAR removed one such rumble strip after that race but kept the rest of the curbing, including a relative “launchpad” that sent Kris Wright’s Xfinity car airborne.

The Turn 6 curbing was adjusted several times through the course of the race to clean up debris, but caused its biggest accident at lap 78. A 19-minute red flag period followed, during which a majority of the curbing was removed, though the launchpad stayed. Another wreck immediately ensued, setting up a second overtime session.

Rookie Chase Briscoe and Denny Hamlin led the field into the narrow first turn, during which Briscoe’s No. 14 Ford was sent through the nearby infield and back on the track. Briscoe was penalized for shortcutting the track but briefly continued to race Hamlin for the lead. In the ensuing battle, Hamin was spun out, giving third-place runner Allmendinger the opening he needed to steal the win. Briscoe and Hamlin shared a tense but ultimately peaceful confrontation on pit road.

The win was an emotional event for Allmendinger, who previously ran 11 years as a full-time Cup Series driver (2008-18). Allmendinger, made a name for himself as a professional racer on the open-wheel circuit, earning five wins on the Champ Car circuit. The 39-year-old is set to represent Kaulig Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs this fall.

After consecutive weeks at road course, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to an oval next week at Michigan International Speedway’s FireKeepers Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Two races remain in the Cup Series’ regular season, which will end on August 28 at Daytona.

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR returns in familar fashion, as Kyle Larson takes Watkins Glen

Larson ended Chase Elliott’s monopoly on Schuyler County, leading the last 27 laps in the return of the NASCAR Cup Series.

We now return to our regularly scheduled NASCAR programming.

The NASCAR Cup Series ended two different pauses on Sunday at Watkins Glen International: Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen event not only ended a two-week hiatus for the circuit due to the Tokyo Olympics but also its return to Schuyler County. A Cup Series staple since 1986, WGI’s date was canceled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic last season. Sunday’s return produced a familiar result.

Kyle Larson led the final 26 laps of Sunday’s race, earning his series-best fifth victory of the year and his first at The Glen. Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet denied teammate and defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott a chance to become the first driver since Jeff Gordon to win three consecutive Cup races at The Glen (1997-99). Elliott did finish in the runner-up spot, marking the fourth time he and Larson have swept the top two positions this season.

Joe Gibbs Toyotas driven by Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.

Larson ran started the race in fourth behind the Team Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney. Keselowski, the pole sitter, led the first nine laps before spinning, as his day was marred by brake issues. Logano’s No. 22 Ford would win the first of two 20-lap stages before giving way to Gibbs Toyotas. Over the second segment, Larson battled Truex and Christopher Bell for the lead, getting into trouble when contact spun the latter’s No. 20. Larson apologized to Bell, who recovered to finish seventh, during his postrace interview with NBC Sports.

Truex, winner of The Glen’s 2017 event, won the second stage and occupied the two spots with Larson when each of them made their final pit stop of the day with 33 laps to go. A strong service from the No. 5 crew allowed Larson to get off first, giving him the inside edge for the lead when pit stops cycled around. The resulting big interval, peaking at over 12 seconds, allowed him to hold off the charging No. 9 of Elliott, who sliced Larson’s lead down to 2.4 seconds after getting around Truex for the runner-up slot.

Elliott’s second-place run capped off a roller-coaster day for the No. 9 team. They were forced to start from the rear of the field after failing prerace inspection due to a faulty rear-window air deflector. Multiple failures led to the ejection of Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson and the loss of 10 points in the championship standings (Bell dealt with the same issues, losing his crew chief Adam Stevens).

Larson has now earned five wins this season, breaking his previous career-best of four set during the 2017 season. Two of those wins have come at road courses, having previously won at Sonoma in June. This latest win also ties Larson for the Cup Series’ regular season points lead with Hamlin, who has yet to visit victory lane this season. Elliott’s seven wins on road courses, including the most recent at Road America, are good for third-best in Cup Series history, behind only fellow champions Gordon (9) and Tony Stewart (8).

Another road course lingers next week. The Cup Series will make its maiden voyage on the road course at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard (1 p.m. ET, NBC).

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: 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: 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