Championship got away on pit stops and stall selection for other contenders at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Arizona – A presumptive narrative entering the Cup Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway was that qualifying a day earlier essentially would be meaningless for the Championship 4 drivers.

But it essentially might have decided the title.

Kyle Larson led the final 28 laps to win the race and championship after his pit crew lifted him from fourth into first– and past contenders Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott — by changing four tires in 11.8 seconds during the final caution for its second-fastest pit stop of the season.

But while the swift service was critical, the Hendrick Motorsports driver likely wouldn’t have emerged with the lead without his team selecting the first pit stall – a privilege he earned by winning the pole position Saturday. Having the final stall before blending from the pits back onto the track allowed Larson to stomp the accelerator on exit without concern of a speeding violation — and it helped him take the lead before the final restart by nipping Hamlin, whose pit crew demonstratively celebrated after ripping off a 12.1-second stop that they thought had put their driver in the catbird seat.

“It’s funny because earlier Kyle said he didn’t know that qualifying mattered all that much,” No. 5 Chevrolet crew chief Cliff Daniels said. “Well, it absolutely did, to get that pit stall. What a big deal that was.

“He was saying that more in the context of there’s going to be an ebb and flow to the race, guys are going to be up front, not up front. I know that that’s how he meant that comment when he made it, but it was pretty funny to me to hear him say that.”

His championship rivals all had expressed similar sentiments over the past week about the first qualifying session in nearly three months during a season disrupted by the pandemic.

Conventional wisdom held that trying to win the pole at Phoenix hardly mattered for the Championship 4 teams for two reasons: 1) They still were guaranteed to be among the first four pit selections (which ensured they each would get decent pits, though qualifying still determined who would get the No. 1 stall); and 2) Starting position hardly seemed to matter in the race after Elliott won the 2020 championship race starting from the rear last season.

But Sunday’s 312-lap race came down to track position on the final stop, and Larson was in the catbird seat despite having what Hamlin said was “the fourth-best car.”

“It starts with the pit stop,” Larson told NBC Sports. “Without that pit stop, we are not champions.”

Daniels said Larson was “tied for third” in speed among the championship cars, adding that his handling was “terrible” halfway through the race despite leading a race-high 107 laps. The team made significant adjustments on every stop, including the pivotal final trip to the pits.

Truex, who fell from first to third during the final yellow, and Elliott, who lost one spot, both said their teams were hurt more by being slow on their last stops than by Larson benefiting from the first pit stall.

“Ultimately we needed to beat him off pit road,” Truex said. “It’s unfortunate, but we win and lose as a team.”

Hamlin said he had no regrets about his team de-emphasizing qualifying because “I don’t think we would have qualified as fast as he did anyway. Those cars were just superior to ours for the second half of the year in every aspect on the short run. So I don’t know if we would have qualified any different.

“(Larson) just had a blazing fast stop, and the pit stall was such an advantage from qualifying that that was it,” Hamlin said. “Once you get out front, that’s it.”

Daniels, whose crew chose the first pit stall for the final five races of the 2021 season (“so that was a really comfortable spot”), said Larson made no mock qualifying runs in the lone practice Friday. Daniels leaned on some info gleaned from a mock qualifying run by teammate Alex Bowman to put the finishing touches on Larson’s qualifying setup.

It paid off handsomely when Larson hugged the high line around the 1-mile oval to knock Elliott off the pole on the second-to-last qualifying attempt.

“All of our homework was done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and I guess a little bit Thursday on qualifying,” Daniels said. “But none while we were at the track, which sounds crazy to say. We were going to run (the top lane) in (turns) 1 and 2 on the money lap, and then just pray (in turns) 3 and 4.

“So the plan that we established on Tuesday for how to go qualify is exactly what Larson executed, which is just incredible. Honestly, that had nothing to do with the car, that was all him.”

It’s the second consecutive year that pit stops played a major factor in the championship race; last year Brad Keselowski finished second after losing 13 spots in the pits with a car that timing and scoring indicated was fastest.

Here’s a Sunday breakdown for the three drivers who missed on a championship at Phoenix:


MARTIN TRUEX JR. (second)

How he nearly won: His No. 19 Toyota was the best car on long runs during the race and seemed to be in the catbird seat when cycling into the lead on Lap 252 by pitting under green just before a yellow flag (and staying on the lead lap).

How he ultimately lost: When the caution flew 30 laps later for debris, he lost two spots in the pits and could regain only one position.

What he said: “It didn’t go the way we needed. Then at the end there, not quite enough speed to get to (Larson) and then around him.

“We hung around right there where we needed to be, had a really good car, especially on the long runs early in the race. Track position was tough. Seemed like whoever was out front could drive away for 30, 40 laps and then you’d kind of race from there on until the end of the run.

“Felt like all of us were really equally matched, honestly. We were all really good, really fast. Whoever got out front seemed to be good on the short run, and then long run it was kind of back and forth between everybody all day it seemed like.

“So we did everything we needed to. We got a lucky break there with the caution when we pitted and got us the lead, and we were driving off into the sunset. We just didn’t have the short run speed all day, and then certainly with 20 to go it’s going to be hard to pass anybody out front in clean air. I think if we would have had the lead, we could have held him off. But hindsight is 20/20, and we didn’t have the lead, so here we are. Really proud of our team and our season. Come in here once again as underdogs and had a shot at it, so that was fun.”


DENNY HAMLIN (third)

How he nearly won: Despite failing to lead a lap in the championship finale for the second consecutive year, his No. 11 Toyota was much more competitive and was stalking teammate Truex for the lead until the final caution.

How he ultimately lost: He was second on the final restart, but Larson got a good jump, and Hamlin eventually faded to third.

What he said: “We were going to have to have this thing go a certain way, and it was going a certain type of way until 25 (laps) to go. The first half of the race, we were kind of mediocre compared to the field. But in the long run, we just were really fast. Just didn’t have that short run speed. It’s nothing to hang our head about. Obviously there’s disappointment, but there’s just nothing else I felt like I could have done differently.

“You think about it, and I think about it, that this is a great opportunity. This is the last generation of this car that I took a very good liking to over the last three years. We don’t know what the Next Gen car brings. We don’t know will our team be as good. Like there’s just many, many question marks that happens after this. That’s why we really put so much emphasis on, ‘Let’s try to win this, win this this year.’ But honestly, there’s just nothing else I could have done. There’s nothing else. I drove as hard as I could every lap. I didn’t have the speed for the first 20. It was evident in a lot of the restarts we had. It was actually overachieved in quite a few. But that was it. I have to live with the result because I can’t change it. Disappointed, absolutely, for sure. But I knew kind of going into today I was going to need the race to go a certain way. If it goes the way it did last year (without a caution over the final 112 laps), we’re probably winning.

“But it didn’t. We knew that our percentage was low, and that was the case. Many of these races come down to green-white checkers or shootouts at the end, and that just wasn’t our strength and hasn’t been ever.”


CHASE ELLIOTT (fifth)

How he nearly won: Led 94 laps and had the best short-run car during the race.

How he ultimately lost: Contact with Larson while battling for the lead flared out the No. 5’s right-rear fender, which made his Hendrick teammate harder to catch because of added downforce. Elliot also lost a spot on the critical final stop and scraped the wall over the last run.

What he said: “I kind of thought I had a run a little bit (on Larson), and I didn’t think there was quite enough room, and I thought he was going to come to the wall, so I was like, well, I’ll try to go to the bottom really fast, and then he ended up like not moving, and then I came down. It was just a really weird set of circumstances, ended up hitting him in the right rear and it flared the thing out.

“But yeah, just honestly really proud of our effort. I thought we had a really good car. Honestly I thought all four guys, to Martin’s point, were good. I felt like we all kind of had our moments really throughout the day. You get a caution with 20 laps to go, it’s going to be very difficult to run down and pass the guy that jumps out front in the restart. But yeah, proud of our team. Felt like we had a nice game plan coming into the week. Felt like our car did a lot of the things we wanted it to do. No major mistakes, just needed to be a little better in those first few sequences of restarts and pit stops there at the end.”

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

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CONCORD, N.C. —  NASCAR announced Tuesday that it will not permit drivers to run against the wall to gain speed as Ross Chastain did in last year’s Martinsville Cup playoff race.

NASCAR made the announcement in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

MORE: NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

MORE: NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

Chastain drove into the Turn 3 wall and rode it around the track at higher speed than the rest of the field, passing five cars in the final two turns to gain enough spots to make the championship race. NASCAR allowed the move to stand even though some competitors had asked for a rule change leading into the season finale at Phoenix last year.

NASCAR is not adding a rule but stressed that Rule 10.5.2.6.A covers such situations.

That rule states: “Safety is a top priority for NASCAR and NEM. Therefore, any violations deemed to compromise the safety of an Event or otherwise pose a dangerous risk to the safety of Competitors, Officials, spectators, or others are treated with the highest degree of seriousness. Safety violations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

NASCAR stated that the penalty for such a maneuver would be a lap or time penalty.

Chastain said he’s fine with being known for that move, which will never be repeated in NASCAR history.

“I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a wave that will continue beyond just 2022 or just beyond me,” Chastain told NBC Sports earlier this month about the move’s legacy. “There will be probably a day that people will learn about me because of that, and I’m good with that. I’m proud of it.

“I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think it will ever pay the reward that it paid off for us that it did that day. I hope I’m around in 35 years to answer someone’s question about it. And I probably still won’t have a good answer on why it worked.”

The video of Chastain’s wall-hugging maneuver had 12.5 million views on the NBC Sports TikTok account within a week of it happening. Excluding the Olympics, the only other video that had had more views on the NBC Sports TikTok account to that point in 2022 was Rich Strike’s historic Kentucky Derby win. 

Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly and Daniel Ricciardo all praised Chastain’s move at the time, joining a chorus of competitors throughout social media. 

NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

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NASCAR’s preseason non-points race, now known as the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, was born in 1979 with the idea of testing the sport’s fastest drivers and cars on one of racing’s fastest tracks — Daytona International Speedway.

The concept was driver vs. driver and car vs. car. No pit stops. Twenty laps (50 miles) on the Daytona oval, with speed and drafting skills the only factors in victory.

Originally, the field was made up of pole winners from the previous Cup season. In theory, this put the “fastest” drivers in the Clash field, and it also served as incentive for teams to approach qualifying with a bit more intensity. A spot in the Clash the next season meant extra dollars in the bank.

The race has evolved in crazy directions over the years, and no more so than last year when it was moved from its forever headquarters, the Daytona track, to a purpose-built short track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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Over the decades, virtually everything about the race changed in one way or another, including the race length, eligibility requirements, format, calendar dates, sponsorship and title. From 1979-2020, the race was held on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval and served as a sort of preview piece for the Daytona 500, scheduled a week later. In 2021, it moved to Daytona’s road course before departing for the West Coast last season.

Here’s a look at 10 historic moments in the history of the Clash:

NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 2022 — Few races have been as anticipated as last year’s Clash at the Coliseum. After decades in Daytona Beach, NASCAR flipped the script in a big way and with a big gamble, putting its top drivers and cars on a tiny temporary track inside a football stadium. Joey Logano won, but that was almost a secondary fact. The race was a roaring success, opening the door for NASCAR to ponder similar projects.

2. 2008 — How would Dale Earnhardt Jr. handle his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports? The answer came quickly — in his first race. Junior led 46 of the 70 laps in winning what then was called the Budweiser Shootout, his debut for Hendrick. The biggest action occurred prior to the race in practice as Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch tangled on — and off — the track. Both were called to the NASCAR trailer, where the incident reportedly accelerated. Both received six-race probations.

3. 2012 — One of the closest finishes in the history of the Clash occurred in a race that produced a rarity — Jeff Gordon’s car on its roof. Kyle Busch and Gordon made contact in Turn 4 on lap 74, sending Gordon into the wall, into a long slide and onto his roof. A caution sent the 80-lap race into overtime. Tony Stewart had the lead on the final lap, but Kyle Busch passed him as they roared down the trioval, winning the race by .013 of a second.

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4. 1984 — A race that stands out in Ricky Rudd’s career, and not in a fun way. Neil Bonnett won the sixth Clash, but the video highlights from the day center on Rudd’s 15th-lap crash. He lost control of his car in Turn 4 and turned sideways. As Rudd’s car left the track, it lifted off the surface and began a series of flips before landing on its wheels, very badly damaged. Safety crews removed Rudd from the car. He suffered a concussion, and his eyes were swollen such that he had to have them taped open so he could race a few days later in a Daytona 500 qualifier.

5. 1980 — The second Clash was won by Dale Earnhardt, one of Daytona International Speedway’s masters. This time he won in unusual circumstances. An Automobile Racing Club of America race often shared the race day with the Clash, and that was the case in 1980. The ARCA race start was delayed by weather, however, putting NASCAR and track officials in a difficult spot with the featured Clash also on the schedule and daylight running out. Officials made the unusual decision of stopping the ARCA race to allow the Clash to run on national television. After Earnhardt collected the Clash trophy, the ARCA race concluded.

6. 1994 — Twenty-two-year-old Jeff Gordon gave a hint of what was to come in his career by winning the 1994 Clash. Gordon would score his first Cup point win later that year in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but he also dazzled in the Clash, making a slick three-wide move off Turn 2 with two laps to go to get by Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan. He held on to win the race.

7. 2006 — Upstart newcomer Denny Hamlin became the first rookie to win the Clash. Tony Stewart, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, had the lead with four laps to go, but a caution stacked the field and sent the race into overtime. Hamlin fired past Stewart, who had issues at Daytona throughout his career, on the restart and won the race.

8. 2004 — This one became the duel of the Dales. Dale Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap to win by .157 of a second. It was the only lap Jarrett led in the two-segment, 70-lap race.

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9. 1979 — The first Clash, designed by Anheuser-Busch to promote its Busch beer brand, drew a lot of attention because of its short length (20 laps) and its big payout ($50,000 to the winner). That paycheck looks small compared to the present, but it was a huge sum in 1979 and made the Clash one of the richest per-mile races in the world. Although the Clash field would be expanded in numerous ways over the years, the first race was limited to Cup pole winners from the previous season. Only nine drivers competed. Buddy Baker, almost always fast at Daytona, led 18 of the 20 laps and won by about a car length over Darrell Waltrip. The race took only 15 minutes.

10. 2020 — This seemed to be the Clash that nobody would win. Several huge accidents in the closing miles decimated the field. On the final restart, only six cars were in contention for the victory. Erik Jones, whose car had major front-end damage from his involvement in one of the accidents, won the race with help from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who was one lap down in another damaged car but drafted behind Jones to push him to the win.