Daytona 500 takeaways: Denny Hamlin loses control of race, Kyle Larson’s return

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For a while, Denny Hamlin indeed made it look easy again.

An ill-fated pit strategy under green flag conditions may have put the kibosh on his bid to become the first driver to win three consecutive Daytona 500s on Sunday night. But not before Hamlin showed again why he’s become so dominant on the superspeedways in recent years.

“We were controlling the lines, controlling the pace – It was easy for a little while,” Hamlin said after a race where he led the most laps (98) and swept both stages. “But I knew it was all gonna be about that last pit stop if we didn’t have any other cautions.”

Before things went awry, Hamlin dictated the proceedings with his Toyota teammates often behind him. Of course, a good spotter is essential to mastering the art of superspeedway racing – and in Chris Lambert, Hamlin has one of the best.

“He really does a great job painting a picture for me in the mirror, that way I don’t have to look,” Hamlin said of Lambert. “I can just trust in what he’s saying and make a move. That’s been the key, I think, to me, being able to control and move side to side in tight spaces. It’s been our communication and how well we’ve worked together.”

MORE: Daytona 500 win rewards resiliency of Michael McDowell

But after he and his teammates were shuffled back in the field following the green flag cycle with less than 30 laps to go, Hamlin was at the mercy of the single-file line that droned around the 2.5-mile oval until roughly two laps to go.

Following the Fords and Chevrolets, the Toyotas were the last to pit during the cycle on Lap 173. But when they came out, Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Bubba Wallace were all separated on the track.

Now running in single-file with Joey Logano at the front, the Fords and Chevrolets quickly swallowed them up. Hamlin ended up slotting into 13th at Lap 176. When the white flag waved 23 laps later, he had only been able to move up to ninth.

He avoided the fiery, multi-car wreck on the last lap to finish fifth. Afterwards, he seemed miffed over the lack of effort in making a move with a win on the line.

“I understood at the end of stages, waiting until the last lap – you’re gonna get some points, no matter what,” he said. “But ultimately, and this is selfishly speaking, I’m wondering, ‘What in the world? Why are we running in a single file line crossing the white – 10th, 12th, 8th, 6th, are you just happy with that finish or are you gonna go for it?’ Especially since there were really no Fords beyond fifth or sixth – it was them and everyone else. Then, surprise, everyone else didn’t go.

“I wasn’t sure who was leading that, whether it was Austin (Dillon) or Chase (Elliott). I don’t know. You gotta go for the win. I tried to do everything I could from 12th. I kept pulling out of line, trying to side-draft guys, try to pick them off one by one. But I couldn’t make it happen. Once I got to eighth in line after I passed some lapped cars, I was like, ‘This is all I’ve got.’ I just hoped that they’d crash with two to go and we’d get a restart and then I’ve get a shot. It just didn’t happen in our favor.”

All’s well that ends well for Larson

Kyle Larson appeared to have escaped the last-lap crash like Hamlin did, but contact from another competitor sent him into the Turn 4 wall and spinning.

Despite the incident, Larson was credited with a 10th-place finish after NASCAR froze the field at the time of the caution. That capped an official return to Cup racing which had its ups and downs.

Larson scored points in both stages, but toward the end of Stage 2, he suffered a left rear tire failure after getting knocked into the wall. After finishing eighth in the stage, he was assessed a pit road penalty for a safety violation.

He quietly made his way back toward the front, and was within striking distance of the leaders on the final lap before the crash.

“I thought we were in an OK spot there at the end to get a top five, if not, maybe a win if things worked out down the backstretch and through (turns) three and four,” Larson said afterwards. “They all kind of started crashing in front of me.

“I almost made it through; I think I barely clipped the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) car and then kind of slid all the way through (turns) three and four. Thought I might save it, couldn’t save it and started spinning. Lost some spots, but it was still a top 10.”

Spire scores double top 10

Spire Motorsports expanded to a two-car program in the offseason with Corey LaJoie as its mainstay in the No. 7 Chevrolet. For the Daytona 500, its other entry, the No. 77, was driven by 2010 race winner and Fox Sports NASCAR analyst Jamie McMurray in a one-off effort.

Both drivers scored top 10 finishes with McMurray in eighth and LaJoie in ninth. Prior to Sunday, the team had only one top 10-finish in Cup competition – its rain-shortened win with Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley at Daytona in July 2019.

McMurray recovered from two separate incidents during the race. He was involved in the 16-car pileup on Lap 14, and was later sent spinning behind Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s incident on Lap 112.

McMurray also recorded the fastest lap of the race at 44.945 seconds (200.245 mph) on Lap 189.

Rule of 3’s

Twenty years after he lost his life in the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt was honored with a tribute at Lap 3 in Sunday’s race. Fans in the grandstands and competitors on pit road raised three fingers, while the scoring pylon lit up top to bottom with Earnhardt’s famous No. 3.

Lap 3 also saw the first elimination in Sunday’s race. Derrike Cope, who capitalized on Earnhardt’s flat tire on the final lap to win the 1990 Daytona 500, suffered a tire failure and crashed out of what was likely his final career Cup start.

Cope was driving the No. 15 entry for Rick Ware Racing. Earnhardt drove the No. 15 entry for Bud Moore during the 1982 and 1983 seasons, earning – of course – three wins during that span.

The following year, Earnhardt returned to Richard Childress’ No. 3 Chevrolet for good.

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.