Larson already clinched his spot to the NASCAR Cup Series’ semifinal round, but captured his first victory at Charlotte’s road course.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) October 10, 2021
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.
LARSONY AT THE ROVAL™️ 💯
— Charlotte Motor Speedway (@CLTMotorSpdwy) October 10, 2021
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.”
Kevin Harvick WRECKS Chase Elliott!
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 10, 2021
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.”
— JJ (@TomcatNASCAR_2) October 10, 2021
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”.
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.
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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags