Road America takeaways: Aggressive driving ratchets up

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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.

NASCAR Cup Series Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip
Kyle Larson’s run since May has put him in position to take the points lead from Denny Hamlin. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

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.

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Chase Elliott leads Matt DiBenedetto and Kyle Busch in front of the crowd in Turn 5 at Road America. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

VIBRANT ATMOSPHERE

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.”

NASCAR Cup Series Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip
Fans on a grassy field at Road America. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

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.

CALM DEMEANOR

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.

NASCAR Cup Series Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip
A pit road speeding penalty doomed Martin Truex Jr. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“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.”

LOOKING AHEAD

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.

NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Texas Grand Prix
Car owner Richard Childress said that his organization will have discussions with Trackhouse Racing to see what their future relationship will be. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“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.”

 

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.