Pocono takeaways: William Byron, Denny Hamlin lose out in Sunday fuel finish

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Long Pond, Pa. – Saturday’s Cup race at Pocono Raceway ended with a surprise. Sunday’s Cup race ended with desperation.

Calculations on fuel mileage were put to the test as the final laps wound down Sunday. Winner Kyle Busch passed the test, as did others.

William Byron and Kyle Busch‘s teammate, Denny Hamlin, did not.

Having pitted on Lap 94, Byron was initially told that he was good to go on fuel to the finish. But while running second behind Brad Keselowski with less than 20 laps to go, he was told to “max save” by his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team.

  • At Lap 124 of 140, he ran the lap at 54.015 seconds.
  • At Lap 127, he was again told “max save” and posted a lap of 55.860 seconds.
  • At Lap 129, he was then told to “clutch it in the corners” and slowed to a lap of 56.823 seconds.

He slowed by nearly 3 seconds within that five-lap window in an attempt to save enough fuel to make it to the finish.

After Keselowski went to pit road for fuel at Lap 133, Byron picked up the pace again and started running laps in the 54-second range. But at Lap 137, Byron reported that his car had low fuel pressure. Finally, at Lap 138, he had to pit himself.

Finishing 12th in the end, Byron later said he believed he was closer on fuel than what it turned out.

“I thought we could get up as far as we could, and a couple of guys would have to pit and we’d save and win,” Byron told NBC Sports. “So that was kind of how it was looking to work out there with (Keselowski) and then we had to go into max save.

“I thought for sure we’d make it, because usually you’ve got a little bit of fudge factor there. But we ran out with three (laps) to go, so not even close.”

As for Hamlin, he, too, was trying to nurse his final fuel tank. But with Byron assuming the lead with three seconds to spare, Hamlin was allowed to go a bit quicker to try and pressure Byron.

Byron’s lead promptly fell, but by then, Hamlin had been told that he was racing Kyle Busch behind him for the win. When Byron pitted with three to go, Hamlin moved into the lead but through the tunnel turn, he reported that he was running dry and promptly pitted.

Hamlin wound up finishing 14th, victimized by fuel mileage for the second weekend in a row. With three laps to go at Nashville, Hamlin had to pit from 10th for fuel and ended up 21st.

“You’re trying to win or you’re trying to get the best finish that you can,” Hamlin told NBC Sports about having to save in the final laps. “But ultimately we just didn’t save enough. (Kyle Busch), I think came in and got topped off because he had transmission issues. That was essentially the race.”

“We’re just not getting any luck right now. I hate luck, in racing terms, because you make your own luck. But gosh, it’s just kind of crazy at this point.”

Larson salvages weekend

On Saturday, Kyle Larson‘s luck ran out when he blew a tire while leading on the final lap. But on Sunday, that luck held as he survived the fuel duel to finish second in a backup car.

Fuel mileage wasn’t the only issue Larson had to contend with Sunday. On the day’s first restart at Lap 7, Hamlin was forced to check up entering Turn 1, causing Larson to run into him.

The incident not only damaged the nose of Larson’s car, but also put a hole in his car’s grille.

That led to an extended pit stop for repairs during the Stage 1 intermission. After making another stop under green at Lap 46, Larson steadily climbed through the field and finished Stage 2 in eighth despite having a much more loose-handling car than he did Saturday.

Following pit stops during the Stage 2 intermission, Larson again charged back into the top 10 by Lap 110 and then fifth with around 20 laps to go.

That set up the final frantic laps, where Larson benefitted from Keselowski, Byron and Hamlin having to pit and moved into the runner-up spot.

Larson admitted that the result was a “surprising” one.

“Seemed like every point of the race, everything that happened in the race, nothing went my way,” Larson said. “Restarts, just guys messing up in front of me, me getting shuffled out of the groove, bad lane choices on my part, everything didn’t go my way.”

“(Crew chief) Cliff (Daniels) did a really good job keeping my head in it, coached me through saving fuel. Yeah, I mean, I had a lot of hope there at the end thinking that (Kyle Busch) might run out.”

A series of unfortunate events

Before Sunday’s race ended with a fuel mileage derby, the most interesting portion of the day came following the debris caution at Lap 94.

Unfortunately for reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott and Christopher Bell, this was where potential top five runs fell apart for them both.

During the caution, Elliott faked coming down to pit road and was to inherit the lead. However, it was ruled that he didn’t maintain his speed under caution, which gave the point to Bell for the restart at Lap 97.

After losing the lead to Alex Bowman, Bell raced Ross Chastain for second through Turn 3 when Chastain slid up the track. Bell and Chastain made contact, with Bell also getting into the outside wall.

On the next lap, Chastain suffered a flat right-front tire from the contact and slowed in Turn 1 while Bell continued racing with Elliott. Then, in Turn 3, Elliott got loose under Bell and made contact with him.

With some help from the wall, Bell got straightened again. But now with considerable rear-end damage to his car, he had to pit next time around and fell off the lead lap.

Elliott did not get through unscathed, either. Not long after Bell pitted, he suffered two right-front tire failures that forced him to pit at Lap 101 and again at Lap 107.

The incidents relegated Elliott to 27th (one lap down) and Bell to 32nd (five laps down) at day’s end.

Dog day afternoon

Will Kurt Busch end up ruing how his Pocono doubleheader weekend ended on Sunday?

The former Cup champion gained 27 points on Chris Buescher over the two races to take a three-point lead on him for the 16th and final playoff spot.

In Saturday’s first race, Busch finished sixth after earning a playoff point (Stage 2 win) and 14 stage points.

But he lost in the fuel mileage battle that ended Sunday’s second race.

With two laps to go, Kurt Busch had risen to fourth behind leaders Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. But he had to pit with the white flag in sight like Hamlin did.

That sent him to a 20th-place finish after having scored no stage points – an opportunity to get some playoff cushion lost.

He later tweeted: “Running out of gas when our equipment and calculations said we were good is frustrating.” On the bright side, his puppies at the motorhome were blissfully unaware.

As for other drivers on the fringe of the playoff picture, Daniel Suarez moved up to 18th after back-to-back top-15 finishes this weekend (13th on Saturday, 15th on Sunday). The Trackhouse driver shaved his gap to the cutline a bit; he entered Pocono 61 points behind and leaves 48 points back.

An engine issue at Lap 111 ended Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s day on Sunday, and that cost him some ground playoff-wise. He entered Pocono 43 points behind the cutline. After finishes of 15th and 38th, he’s slipped to 19th in the standings at 54 points behind.

The biggest gainer, points-wise, among the bubble drivers was Bubba Wallace.

With finishes of 14th and fifth at Pocono, he moved from 77 to 54 points behind the cutline and moved into 20th in the standings.

Dustin Long contributed to this report

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.