Sonoma takeaways: So close, yet so far for JGR in Sonoma

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Following Kyle Larson’s dominant victory in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, Kyle Busch put his Joe Gibbs Racing team at “about a seven” compared to Larson’s perfect 10.

Following another dominant victory by Larson on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, Busch put it in a different way that still sounded largely the same.

“We’re number two, right? I feel like that’s where we’re at,” Busch said after finishing fifth on the road course.

The result was his fourth top-five finish in the past six races. JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. also had a solid outing, finishing two spots ahead of him in third.

Neither of them had an answer for Larson.

While a run of late cautions gave brief doubt to the outcome, Sunday’s race was always his to lose. He didn’t.

With that, Hendrick Motorsports has won four races in a row after Busch and Truex opened May with back-to-back wins for JGR (Busch at Kansas, Truex at Darlington).

“(Larson) was on his own level and (Chase Elliott) and (Truex) seem to be equal,” Busch said. “We were a little off (Truex). I don’t know why. We were just overall too loose all day.”

Truex said his only hope of beating Larson was if the race ended on a long green-flag run, but even with that, he still didn’t know if that would have given him a shot. The cautions put the kibosh on that.

But while Truex knows there’s a gap between Hendrick and JGR, he’s optimistic it can be closed.

“(Hendrick is) definitely really strong, and we definitely have some work to do to catch them,” he said. “That being said, there’s always a chance. We’ve got a great team and great cars and we have some time to get with it and hopefully make some gains.

“When the playoffs start, a lot of weird things can happen and you have to take what you can get. Luckily for us, we have some good tracks in the playoffs, which is always good. They’re definitely strong and we definitely need to keep working on it.”

Ganassi rebound

For the first time all season, Chip Ganassi Racing had both of its cars inside the top 10 at day’s end.

Kurt Busch‘s sixth-place finish was his first top 10 since placing eighth at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February.

Ross Chastain placed seventh, a nice follow-up from his fourth-place showing in the wet two weeks ago at another road course, Circuit of the Americas.

The results were sorely needed after a brutal Coca-Cola 600, where mechanical problems relegated Chastain and Busch to 37th and 38th-place finishes, respectively.

Those issues prompted Hendrick Motorsports general manager Jeff Andrews to apologize to CGR last Friday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. The two organizations have a technical alliance together.

While both CGR drivers finished toward the front Sunday, one had a smoother time than the other.

Busch scored points in both stages. Chastain had to recover from an incident on Lap 77 that nearly ended his run.

Entering the hairpin at Turn 11, Chastain made a late move inside of Corey LaJoie and had contact with him. The ensuing stack-up behind Chastain turned him around and left both Kevin Harvick and William Byron with considerable front end damage to their cars.

Byron’s damage was enough to eliminate him from the race. Chastain drove through the Turn 11 parking lot to return to the track. However, he was not penalized for cutting the course and took the subsequent restart in ninth place.

Better than it could’ve been

Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, and Bubba Wallace all got out of Sonoma with top-15 finishes after facing an array of obstacles.

Suarez finished 12th despite being penalized on pit road just before and just after the end of Stage 1.

He tried to enter pit road before it was closed with two laps left in the stage, but failed to beat the red lights. Then on a stop under caution at Lap 22, one of his crew members went over the wall too soon.

Strategy and a solid car enabled him to ultimately recover and challenge for a top 10. However, his afternoon ended with a last-lap incident. Contact between him and Michael McDowell in Turn 11 sent the latter spinning out of a top 10 finish (McDowell crossed the line in 28th).

The incident appeared to prompt this Twitter exchange between Suarez’s team, Trackhouse Racing, and McDowell’s team, Front Row Motorsports.

Meanwhile, Dillon finished 13th despite alternator issues that necessitated several battery changes during the race.

“We lost the alternator as soon as the race started,” he said. “It just started to lose voltage. The guys did a great job changing batteries and we were able to get sixth-place stage points that first stage. We just had to grind it out, battle it out. We kept losing track position, but we fought hard all day.”

Wallace, like Suarez, also drew a couple of penalties on pit road before salvaging a 14th-place finish.

Pitting before the end of Stage 1, Wallace was penalized for speeding on exit. Then shortly after pitting before the end of Stage 2, he suffered a flat left rear tire and was forced to nurse his car around the track to get to pit road. It was closed at this point, leading to another penalty.

The episode put Wallace one lap down, but he earned the free pass off the caution at Lap 78 and drove back into the top 15.

Afterward, Wallace credited a recent trip to Sonoma, in which he ran laps in a TA2 car with road course instructor Chris Cook, for giving him more confidence.

“I had a lot of fun,” said Wallace. “I was able to bring it over today. I just felt comfortable. We’ve still got some room to go.

“We’ve still got to figure out what we need in our Toyota Camry to make me a little bit better, but when they are telling me that I’m better than 10 cars on a road course, it’s a pretty damn good day.”

In his sights

Sonoma takeaways
Kyle Larson is gaining on Denny Hamlin for the regular season points lead. The regular season champion earns 15 playoff points. Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images.

As we saw last year with Kevin Harvick’s failure to make the Championship 4, playoff points do not make you bulletproof.

But you still want to have as many as you can.

With 10 races to go in the regular season, Kyle Larson has a series-leading 26 playoff points following his win Sunday at Sonoma.

But his stellar performance over the last month has put him in contention for the regular season championship – and the 15 playoff points that go with it.

Larson had a win slip away from him in May at Kansas Speedway and finished 19th. He still scored 37 points that race, thanks to earning 19 stage points. That put him ninth in regular season points, 144 points behind winless leader Denny Hamlin.

In the five races since, Larson has gained 97 points on Hamlin to pull within 47 of him. During that span, Larson’s earned seven stage wins and has finished no worse than sixth in a stage (Circuit of the Americas, Stage 2).

In the last two races, Larson has scored maximum points: 70 in last week’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, 60 on Sunday at Sonoma. His points nearly doubled Hamlin’s in both races, with Hamlin scoring 36 and 31 points, respectively.

In Sunday’s post-race press conference, Larson admitted he’d thought Hamlin had sewn up the regular season title.

But now?

“We’ve had a few really good weeks where we’ve won stages, won the race these last couple weeks,” he said. “We’ve taken huge chunks out of it.

“It’s definitely a goal of mine to get those 15 bonus playoff points if you can win it. We’ve just got to keep finishing the races, gaining a lot of stage points, and finishing up front. Not making things bad, just trying to be smooth and finish the best we can.”

It’s something to keep an eye on when the Cup Series returns to points-paying action June 20 at Nashville Superspeedway on NBCSN.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.