Kyle Larson’s dominant run ends in dramatic fashion

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LONG POND, Pa. – One more corner, and Kyle Larson would’ve entered an impressive club.

Saturday at Pocono Raceway, Larson was on the verge of becoming the ninth driver – and first since 2007 – to earn four consecutive points victories.

Of the eight drivers that have pulled off the feat, seven are NASCAR Hall of Famers. The outlier, Harry Gant, was no slouch himself.

Instead, Larson’s left-front tire blew and sent him into the Turn 3 wall on the final lap, handing the win to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.

As a result, Larson will start from the rear in a backup car for Sunday’s second race of the Cup doubleheader weekend (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

“I didn’t know if I was out of fuel or something,” Larson told reporters when asked if he had any warning prior to the tire failure. “Then it finally shredded shortly before I got into (Turn) 3.

“Huge bummer. But we had another fast car and feel like we all did a really good job today executing again perfectly. We just had a tire let go.”

As Larson’s backup car was being prepared in the garage, his crew chief, Cliff Daniels, looked over the failed left-front tire with Goodyear personnel.

“There’s a couple spots on the tire where, through like the outer portion of the tread, it’s got a cut through it,” Daniels told NBC Sports. “And the tire is so destroyed that we can’t tell if the cut went through the whole thing.

“Also, the sidewall of the tire is really chewed up but nobody had sidewall issues all day, so I would be hard-pressed to say it’s a sidewall issue. The tire was destroyed and we ran, you know, the length of the front straightaway with a destroyed tire.

“So, we don’t have a conclusion. I think it’s probably one of those cuts that we saw. We just can’t find it the whole way through.”

Before the tire failure, it appeared that Larson would come out on top again despite being markedly less dominant than he has since mid-May.

Larson felt that Kyle Busch (led race-high 30 laps, finished second) and William Byron (led 13 laps, finished third) were initially “quite a bit better” than he was. But by the end of the second stage, he felt he had the fastest car in the field.

Bowman proved to be his biggest challenge of the day. He took the lead with 19 laps to go. Shortly afterward, Larson moved into second.

Thus began the game of cat and mouse.

“When I got to second, I thought that I would pass Alex fairly easy just because I was a lot better than him the run before,” Larson said. “But it seemed like in clean air, his car was really good. I just couldn’t get by him.

“So, I got a little deflated. Then there was moments again where I was like ‘I’m gonna get him now’ and I exited with him off the tunnel (turn) getting in (turn) 3, and then he got better in the tunnel (turn) and I got worse.”

But with three laps to go, Larson found his opportunity.

“He got really tight off of (Turn) 1, and I was still turning good enough to where I could get runs on him,” he said. “So, I was able to get him to adjust his entries a little bit and mess his angles up on exit. Then, I got the run I needed finally.”

And that was seemingly that. Until it wasn’t. Larson, a racer’s racer, knows anything can happen.

“That’s how racing goes sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes, you’re lucky. I’ve won races where the leaders had a lapper spin in front of him late or something’s happened. It’s just the way it goes.”

As for his crew chief, Daniels was glad that he and his team’s next opportunity was coming in one day instead of seven.

“Any time you don’t have things go your way, you certainly want to get back on the horse and ride again,” he told NBC Sports. “That day is tomorrow.”

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.