ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — Denny Hamlin’s aggressive driving against Kyle Larson at Road America showed how much the race for the Cup regular-season championship is heating up.
Larson, who entered Sunday’s race two points behind Hamlin, was poised to take the series lead after outscoring Hamlin by 10 points in the first two stages. That advantage went away when Larson was spun late in the race by teammate Alex Bowman and finished 16th, while Hamlin placed fifth.
Hamlin holds a three-point lead heading into this weekend’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“You hate to give up points, but there’s still a lot of racing left before the playoffs start,” Larson said of the six races that remain before the regular season ends.
“Just keep trying to do a good job in the stages and be nice to get back and win some stages, win some more races and pad our bonus points and then, obviously, would be good to beat Denny and get those five extra (playoff) points (to the regular-season champion).
“Really shooting for it. You can tell he’s shooting for it. He was really aggressive today.”
Hamlin, who has led the points since the second event of the year, acknowledged he raced Larson differently Sunday because of the tight points race.
“Harder than I normally would race him, for sure,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “I’m trying to fend him off. He’s so (expletive) fast. I’m doing everything I can to hold him off. I’m out there driving like a dick. I’m not doing anything that other people don’t do. I just normally don’t race that way. I’ve got a ton of respect for him.”
Hamlin said Larson was to fly back to North Carolina with him after the race.
The friends have been part of an intriguing storyline in recent weeks.
Hamlin led Larson by 144 points after the Mother’s Day event at Darlington Raceway. That race started a streak of seven top-two finishes in eight races for Larson. Hamlin had only two top-five finishes in that stretch.
“Just trying to keep it close going into Daytona to be honest with you,” Hamlin told NBC Sports, referencing the regular-season finale Aug. 28 at Daytona International Speedway. “Those guys have got really, really fast cars right now. I mean extremely fast.
“We’re just trying to weather the storm until we get there. … Realistically, those guys probably should win every race right now.”
What makes this duel critical to Hamlin is his lack of playoff points. He has five; Larson has 32. The regular-season champion gets 15 playoff points. The driver second in the standings at the end of the regular season receives 10 playoff points.
“You have to try to get as many as you can to try to get as much cushion to kind of protect you if something goes wrong,” said Chad Knaus, vice president of competition for Hendrick Motorsports. “Those guys are going to continue to battle for that. I don’t see it ending any time soon.
“I think we can all anticipate the Gibbs guys are going to run stronger and stronger. We know they weren’t going to be on their heels for long. ”
Sunday’s Cup race at Road America marked the third race in the last six weeks the series has competed at a new venue: Circuit of the Americas (May 23), Nashville Superspeedway (June 20) and Road America.
Understandably, crowds are often largest at first-time events. But those events also showed the value of altering the schedule from year to year.
“I think it’s a clear showing to me how we were stuck in a box for so long and how we’re breaking that box open and showing immediate results,” Brad Keselowski said of the changes to the Cup schedule for this season. “I think that’s a good thing.
“More specifically, I think it goes to show that the schedule cannot be static. It needs to be dynamic in a lot of different ways. Not everything in every year needs to be up for grabs. A certain amount of variability can be extremely healthy for our sport.”
Josh Bilicki, a Wisconsin native who has raced at Road America often, said Sunday’s crowd was unlike any he’s seen at the 4-mile track.
“I was here early at 7:30, 8 (a.m. Sunday) and there were more people here than I’ve ever seen that early in the morning,” he said.
Race winner Chase Elliott also was struck by the crowd around the 4-mile track.
“This place was packed,” he said. “This is a massive road course. They were literally, I mean, people everywhere around the course.
“It’s exciting, man. When they change the schedule up, go to new places, you bring energy and excitement that our series deserves to have. I think we saw that today.
Erik Jones said he hoped the sport continued to look at new venues.
“Hopefully, we’re just learning from it and seeing that going to these new venues and maybe just going to places just once a year is beneficial,” he said. “Sometimes I think you can oversaturate a market pretty quickly.”
While NASCAR has not announced the 2022 Cup schedule — that likely will be done later this summer — the track promoted ticket sales for next year’s event. No date was announced, though.
Martin Truex Jr.’s ninth-place finish marked only his second top-10 finish in the last eight races. Both top 10s have come at road courses. There’s only one such track in the playoffs.
Truex has gone from the championship favorite after he won earlier this year at Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington — all key tracks in the playoffs — to not even the best car at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“There’s no concern at all,” crew chief James Small told NBC Sports after Sunday’s race. “As a company we’ve been off a little bit. Last week (at Pocono), we thought both days we had a top-six car. It’s just the way things played out with strategy, we had a bad pit stop and things just snowballed.
“It’s a little bit like (Sunday at Road America), you get back in traffic and it’s so hard to pass back even if you do have a car advantage. None of us are worried. We have a process we live by. We’ll keep following that and ultimately it will pay off, I think.”
A speeding penalty hurt Truex on Sunday. He was in position to be the leader to begin the final stage before the speeding penalty on pit road.
Truex had to start at the rear when the final stage began since his infraction occurred just before the end of the second stage. That meant that he started the final stage 32nd.
“You put yourself back in (32nd), it’s hard to recover,” Small said. “Could have been a lot worse. Ninth is OK. It’s just hard.”
Still, it was a top-10 finish.
“It’s better than the way it’s been going the last few weeks,” he said. “It just seems that everything is going wrong right now. Still a long way to go before the (playoffs) here and we get a reset.”
Trackhouse Racing’s announcement last week that it has purchased Chip Ganassi Racing, effective at the end of the season, leaves questions about its relationship with Richard Childress Racing.
Trackhouse Racing is housed at RCR in Welcome, North Carolina. Team owner Justin Marks said Trackhouse Racing would move into Chip Ganassi Racing’s shop in Concord, North Carolina, for the 2022 season. Marks is looking to move the team to Nashville, Tennessee, as early as for the 2023 season.
What the relationship between the Chevrolet teams will be like next year remains to be seen.
“We’re going to sit down here in a week or so and talk about what we’re going to do and maybe have an extra engine program with it,” Childress told NBC Sports. “We’ve got to see what all comes out of it.”
With many of the elements of the Next Gen car coming from vendors, traditional alliances between teams — where one team builds chassis for another team — likely will need to focus more on engineering or other elements.
“We have a great working relationship with RCR,” Marks said last week. “We have to give them the respect first of exploring with them what a partnership moving into the future looks like, but those are all things we’re going to be considering in short order.”
Richard Childress Racing has alliances with Trackhouse Racing, Kaulig Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports. Kaulig Racing will field two full-time Cup entries next season.
“I just don’t want to overload ourselves,” Childress said. “I did that once before. Kaulig is our key player right now. We’re working with them and (Richard Petty Motorsports) and see where the Pettys go. We’ve got other opportunities if that’s the direction we want to do.”