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

0 Comments

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 Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

0 Comments

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

4 Comments

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

1 Comment

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.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

2 Comments

A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.