Strategy derails Hendrick cars at Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — A critical pit call gone wrong and a NASCAR vehicle breaking down on the track played a key role in keeping Hendrick Motorsports drivers out of Victory Lane and some outside the top 15 Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

With Hendrick the favorite at a 1.5-mile track, it wasn’t surprising that all of its cars ran in the top four during Sunday night’s playoff race, but things soured early in the second stage.

While Chase Elliott recovered to finish second, his teammates did not fare as well. Kyle Larson – who won at this track in the spring and led 95 laps Sunday – was 10th, William Byron finished 18th and Alex Bowman placed 22nd.

The result is that Byron and Bowman head into next weekend’s race at Talladega below the cutline.

Sunday’s race turned for the Hendrick drivers when Joey Gase crashed and brought out the caution on Lap 93 of the 267-lap race. The incident came five laps after the second stage began.

Byron led and was followed by Larson, eventual winner Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Elliott. Bowman was 10th.

The field had pitted after the first stage a few laps earlier. So, the Hendrick cars of Byron, Larson, Elliott and Bowman were among seven cars stayed out. The rest of the field came to pit road.

“At the end of the day, in hindsight, it was 100% a blown call on all four Hendrick cars, and I certainly own my part in that,” said Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Larson.

Rudy Fugle, crew chief for Byron, said it was tough to give up the lead at that point in the race.

“You have that track position, you’re just outside the window of making it (to the end of the second stage) and it ends up being a long cleanup, so you get more caution laps than you’re supposed to get,” Fugle said. “It’s one of those deals where it’s way easier to be 10th than it is to be the leader.”

What made the call to stay out curious was the recent trend for Las Vegas. The last three Cup races at this track did not have a caution in the second stage. The Hendrick crew chiefs were counting on a caution to happen this time.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Hamlin, said this was the key point of the race.

“I was confident we were doing the right thing,” Gabehart said of pitting while the Hendrick cars did not. “It was just really at a critical point in the stage where it wasn’t obvious that it opened a window for everyone. But it turned out that that’s the way it played out. That was right at the edge of our fuel window. After you run a few cautions, it’s going to put us well within it.

It’s rare when you can look to one singular point in the race and that was the turning point in the race, but it really was. Hendrick cars are always strong at these tracks. I’m not saying we weren’t good. We were certainly capable. That gave us the leg up that we needed to take control of the race.”

Hendrick cars led 103 of the first 152 laps. No Hendrick car led during the final 115 laps. That’s when Hamlin took control, leading 98 of those laps.

Daniels explained why he did not pit Larson.

“There have been playoff races where you get a lot of cautions and they just continue,” Daniels said. “What happened to us in the spring (at Las Vegas) … in the middle of the stage 2, a caution, five laps later another caution, five laps later another caution.

“One time, we screwed that up. Another time, we benefitted substantially from that. I was a little more anticipating this is a quick caution. We’re either going to have another quick caution or we’re going to go long and everybody is still going to have to pit. Thinking we were going to be like two laps short, no reason to put yourself in that position.”

Things changed during that caution when the chase vehicle – which includes a NASCAR official and a medic and is dispatched to each on-track incident – broke down on the backstretch and needed to be towed. That extended the caution two laps.

Suddenly, those cars that pitted were in position to make it to the end of stage 2. The Hendrick cars and others that did not pit could not make it to the end of the stage.

When the race went green all the way to the end of the second stage, the Hendrick cars had to pit.

Compounding issues for Byron was that the team had trouble with the right front tire. Seeing the trouble, Fugle changed strategy and called for a two-tire stop instead of four tires to stay only one lap down. Byron managed to finish the stage as the first car on the lead lap, getting the free pass.

But not getting another caution in the stage cost all four Hendrick cars a change to finish the stage in the top 10 and score any stage points.

Maybe those lost points won’t matter. But Byron, who scored six points in the first stage, is four points below the cutline. Bowman, who did not score any stage points, is 13 points below the cutline.

“It’s unfortunate,” Fugle said of the situation. “We’ll learn from it and we’ll get better.”

Said Daniels: “All of us made a terrible call.”

Even with those challenges, Elliott raced his way back to the lead lap in the second stage, putting him in position to score a runner-up finish.

Byron was running fifth when he hit something on the track and suffered a flat tire with less than 45 laps left in the race. That cost him a top-five finish.

“It just sucks,” Byron said. “Had an amazing car.”

Now, Byron is back below the cutline. Just as we he was in the first round.

“It seems like if we could have a smooth day, we could finish top three almost every time we go to a mile and a half,” he said. “We can do that like last week (at Bristol), we can finish top three pretty easily. I don’t know what we’ve got to do to have a smooth race. It seems like that is our problem.”

Bowman saw his hopes for a top 10 finish fade when he had to pit on Lap 212 for a flat tire after stopping the lap before.

“We weren’t great,” Bowman said. “The stage 2 strategy just didn’t work out for us and it put us in a tough spot there to start stage three. The valve stem got knocked off on a pit stop and the rest is history. Not a good day on any aspects. We had a decent car, we just didn’t have the pit road and strategy we needed.”

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

 

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. 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.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

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

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.”