DARLINGTON, S.C. — With three of four Hendrick Motorsports drivers either near or below the cutoff line and the next playoff race at Richmond Raceway, the task of advancing could prove challenging for the trio.
Reigning champion Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron each finished 26th or worse after hitting the wall in Sunday’s Southern 500. Those woes dropped all three toward the bottom of the playoff standings.
The top 12 advance to the next round. Elliott is 10th — four points above the cutline. Bowman is outside a transfer spot based on a tiebreaker. Byron is nine points out of the transfer spot.
Two races remain in the opening round: Saturday’s event at Richmond and the Sept. 18 race at Bristol.
Richmond has not been a great track for Hendrick Motorsports, although that could be changing.
Until Bowman won there in the spring, Hendrick Motorsports had not triumphed at Richmond since 2008. Joe Gibbs Racing had won 13 times there during that stretch.
In the last seven Richmond races, Hendrick drivers have combined to lead 2.1% of the 2,806 laps run. Hendrick drivers have combined for five top-10 finishes in the last four races there.
Bowman’s win at Richmond didn’t matter much to him after Sunday’s race at Darlington Raceway.
“I don’t think we have any comfort going forward the next two weeks,” he said. “We are going to places that we think we can be strong at, but this is a place where we felt like we should have been pretty strong at and our night was over five laps into the race.”
Kyle Larson, who finished second Sunday, admits his result in the Southern 500 makes him feel better going into Richmond. He placed 18th there in the spring.
“Richmond was really the only bad race we’ve had from start to finish this year,” Larson said. “I know we’ll be better this time around just because we learned a lot off of what Alex was doing. Without even looking at his notes, we probably already knew what was wrong with our car. I know we’ll be better, but after a rough race like that it’s hard to be super confident.”
Jeff Andrews, executive vice president and general manager at Hendrick Motorsports, said the organization feels better about returning to Richmond after the spring race.
“As a company, we went there in the spring with quite a few different options in different cars and hit on some things with (Bowman’s car),” he told NBC Sports. “Certainly a late-race restart there enabled him to get to the win but (Bowman had) one of the better cars on long-run speed. We were really encouraged by that.
“There were some things when we got back, we started talking about some things and looking at some other items that had given us success at road courses and different things. We feel like we’ve got a pretty decent direction. We’re actually kind of excited to go back.”
Andrews cited the front geometry of the chassis and the car’s suspension as items that can transfer from road courses to Richmond.
Road courses helping Hendrick at Richmond would be significant. Elliott won road course races at Circuit of the Americas and Road America this season. Larson won the road course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen this year. Hendrick drivers have led 51.8 of the 463 laps run this season on a road course.
The Southern 500 marked only the fifth time in the last 16 races that Denny Hamlin finished ahead of Kyle Larson in a race.
Frankly, that total could have been worse. Larson was in position to win the first Pocono race when he blew a tire on the last lap and finished ninth (Hamlin was fourth). Larson likely was headed for at least a top-five finish at Road America before being spun by teammate Alex Bowman and placing 16th (Hamlin finished fifth). That race saw a spirited battle between Hamlin and Larson for position before Larson’s incident.
Even with those results, Larson’s strong finish to the regular season moved him past Hamlin to be the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
So to beat Larson Sunday at Darlington Raceway was significant to Hamlin.
“It means a lot,” Hamlin said. “I mean, certainly you don’t like just being the next best every single week. You know, you got to give credit to them. They performed the last 12 races of the regular season like we did the first 12, only they got the wins.”
Larson made it interesting Sunday night with his last-lap move that saw his car bounce off the wall and hit the back of Hamlin’s bumper but it wasn’t enough to get by.
“I was kind of stuck at that gap behind him for the last 15 laps or so,” Larson said. “I wasn’t going to be able to run the bottom and get to his inside and race him that way. Decided I would try to wall ride and see what would happen.
“He started to running a little safer line the last few laps.”
Hamlin explained what he was doing: “I figured there was something coming. I thought that he was actually going to dive down low because I had started backing up on entry to Turn 3 to make sure I kept it off the wall.
“As I kind of was maintaining that gap to him, I just kept creeping down a little bit to make sure I gave myself a little bit more room. With that, you’re giving up lap time. So I thought that the bold move was going to come from the bottom.”
With Hamlin defending the bottom, Larson had to make another move.
“I thought if I rode the wall, I could squeeze to his outside,” Larson said. “Who knows what would have happened after that down the frontstretch? I actually got to his bumper too early and he kind of protected the wall and diid a good job. It was wild. I hope the fans enjoyed the desperation.”
Kevin Harvick’s fifth-place finish marked his first top-five result since late June.
While Harvick remains winless this year, Darlington continued to be good to him. His result was his 12th consecutive top 10 at the track, tying Bill Elliott for the longest such streak at the track.
More important was how the No. 4 car ran. While it wasn’t in position to challenge for the win, running the top five was a step forward.
“The biggest thing is proof we can unload off the truck with the balance right,” crew chief Rodney Childers told NBC Sports. “That’s one thing we struggled with the most this year. The first run of the race, we had the best car. The second run of the race, we had the best car.
“Got off there for a little bit and was able to kind of go back the other direction on things and get it going better. We probably didn’t have the best car, but we had a car that could have run fourth or maybe third if I had put tires on at the end.
“Overall, it’s kind of one his type of nights. A lot of people make mistakes and he just seems to not do those those kind of type of things.”
“I’ve been to Darlington a whole bunch of times,” he said. “You race the racetrack and it’s just what you do. Just because it’s the first race of the playoffs, you can’t force the issue here.”
Martin Truex Jr.’s speeding penalty Sunday marked the fourth time this season he’s been caught going too fast on pit road.
Three of those speeding penalties have cost him a chance of finishing in at least the top two, if not winning.
He finished second in both stages at Richmond in the spring and was second when he was caught speeding on Lap 294 of the 400-lap race. The penalty dropped him to 12th. He finished fifth.
At Road America, pit strategy was going to put him ahead of the field when he beat teammate Kyle Busch off pit road at the end of the second stage. Instead, a speeding penalty dropped Truex to 32nd. He went on to finish ninth.
Sunday, he was caught speeding on pit road on Lap 319 of the 367-lap race. Truex had exited pit road first but the penalty dropped him to 15th. He went on to finish fourth.
“I know my lights,” Truex said, referring to the lights on his dashboard that show him if he’s exceeding the speed limit. “I know what I need to run.
“I was conservative all night long. I don’t know where the .03 miles over came from. I think I short cut that corner just a little bit more because I was kind of by myself. That’s probably where it screwed me.
“Honestly I was trying to be conservative all night because you never want to get a speeding penalty … in a race-winning situation. It sucks. If just go slow, you’re going to lose spots. That’s no good, either. Just a fine line to balance, and we were .03 over tonight.”
After his third career top-five finish, Ross Chastain wasn’t celebrating his third-place result but lamenting what might have been.
Chastain started on the inside of the second row for the final restart, following race leader Denny Hamlin to that lane. Kyle Larson started on the outside of the first row.
The inside lane had often fared better on restarts. Chastain fired off well but was not far enough ahead to move in front of Larson. That allowed Larson to motor by on the outside lane through Turn 1 to take second place. Chastain later challenged but couldn’t get by Larson.
“I just can’t quite race with them, and it starts with my restarts,” Chastain said. “I’ve got some work to do there, so I gave up the outside to take the bottom to be safe and then Kyle rolls around me.
“Was able to make one last charge there at him at the end, but yeah, I just need to clean up a few things.”