Extended cut: Memorable moments of 2021 NASCAR season

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A few days after Kyle Larson captured the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship, we listed five of the most memorable moments from the season.

But as we get ready to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, we can’t help but add a few more.

This “extended cut” of memorable moments adds – among other things – a major milestone for Hendrick Motorsports; the upset victory of the season; and road course chaos at the Racing Capitol of the World. Oh, and some dirt.

Let’s start, once again, from the beginning.

Perseverance (finally) pays off

A nearly six-hour rain delay pushed the finish of the Daytona 500 past midnight the following morning. But those that stayed up saw a wild ending.

Michael McDowell was running third behind Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski down the backstretch on the final lap. As McDowell drafted behind them, Keselowski moved inside on Logano entering Turn 3.

Contact was made between the teammates, setting off a fiery, multi-car wreck that McDowell narrowly escaped. Moments later, the caution came out to freeze the field, with McDowell leading ahead of Chase Elliott.

With that, McDowell had finally earned his first career win in his 358th Cup Series start.

Back in the spotlight

Kyle Larson spent much of the 2020 season indefinitely suspended by NASCAR after his use of a racial slur during an e-sports event in April 2020.

While continuing his dirt-track career, Larson spent time working to make amends for his ignorance and to mature personally. He also received a second chance in NASCAR when Hendrick Motorsports made him driver of its revived No. 5 car.

It didn’t take long for Larson to reward Rick Hendrick’s faith in him. Just four races into his tenure at HMS, Larson claimed his first win for the team at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March.

It took a little bit longer for Larson to round into championship-caliber form. But the Vegas victory was a critical moment in his return to NASCAR.

Get dirty

March also saw the Cup Series race on dirt for the first time since 1970. Over 2,000 truckloads of dirt was used to transform Bristol Motor Speedway’s high-banked, concrete half-mile into a dirt track.

It was not an entirely smooth outing.

Various competition changes were made early in the weekend. Then torrential rains and flooding postponed the race one day to Monday. During the race, dust from the track forced NASCAR to drop double-file restarts in favor of single-file restarts.

But the spectacle of Cup cars on dirt still yielded some compelling racing – including an overtime finish that saw Joey Logano win out after Denny Hamlin‘s attempt to pass Logano high on the restart backfired.

Top of the mountain

In May, Kyle Larson’s run to the championship truly began. He opened the month with three consecutive runner-up finishes at Darlington, Dover, and Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Then on Memorial Day weekend, he finally returned to Victory Lane with a dominant win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

That gave Hendrick Motorsports its 269th career Cup win, pushing them past Petty Enterprises to become the winningest team in series history.

Good to the last drop

The second race of Pocono’s June Cup doubleheader became a classic fuel mileage derby.

Brad Keselowski was forced to pit from the lead with nine laps to go for fuel. That gave the lead to William Byron, who tried but couldn’t stretch his fuel and pitted with two laps to go.

With Byron out of contention, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch were now first and second. But then Hamlin blinked and pitted while Busch began the white-flag lap.

Busch made it around one more time to win the race – a result that seemed improbable earlier, when his No. 18 car suffered from transmission issues. At one point, Busch’s car chief entered the Toyota to try and pry loose a stuck shifter.

But while getting out of pit road was tough, those issues also made Busch pit a lap later than others who ran out of fuel ahead of him. In the end, it all worked out.

Beers, brats, burnouts

Big crowds greeted the Cup Series on Fourth of July weekend at Road America, the first time that the series had raced on the Wisconsin road course in nearly 65 years.

They saw what’s been a familiar sight in recent years on the twisty tracks: Chase Elliott victorious.

An ill-fated qualifying session left the reigning Cup champion 34th on the grid for the race. But Elliott still managed to work his way to the front and claim his second win of 2021.

The rowdy fans left an impression on Elliott, who was goaded into a second victory burnout at Turn 5 following his post-race interview with NBC Sports. Elliott subsequently blew out his rear tires and needed a push back to the front stretch.

Bro-tastic battle

With the “help” of teammate Ross Chastain, Kurt Busch bested his brother, Kyle Busch, to win in July at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Leading the race with 25 laps to go, Kyle Busch closed on Chastain to put him one lap down. But Chastain slowed Kyle Busch down, enabling Kurt Busch to catch and pass him for the lead.

An attempt by Kyle Busch to take the lead back with seven laps to go was not successful, and Kurt Busch pulled away to a win that clinched him a playoff spot.

In their respective post-race comments, Kurt Busch praised Chastain, while Kyle Busch was less complimentary. As for Chastain himself?

“I’m racing to stay on the lead lap, and I’m very aware of what’s going on, on the track around me,” Chastain said. “Kurt asked for the bottom and I gave it to him.”

Loudon surprise

Entering the final race before the Olympic break at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Aric Almirola was winless and 27th in points. He left the “Magic Mile” with a seat at the playoff table.

Almirola held off Christopher Bell to win a race that ended eight laps short of scheduled distance due to oncoming darkness. The victory snapped a 98-race winless streak for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver.

Six laps into the race, rain hit the track and set off a multi-car crash. The extended stoppage brought darkness into play, and NASCAR announced after the end of Stage 2 that the race would continue “until conditions dictate otherwise.” If the race had to be shortened, officials would announce 10 laps to go to the checkered flag with no overtime period.

That announcement came at Lap 283 with Almirola leading Bell. Almirola then had to maneuver through lapped traffic in order to keep ahead in the final 10-lap run.

Wild times at the Brickyard

The inaugural race for the NASCAR Cup Series on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course looked poised for a straightforward finish.

But with nine laps to go in the 82-lap scheduled distance, a debris caution wiped out Kyle Larson‘s lead of over four seconds on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott.

And with that, things got wild.

Two major crashes in the same spot on the 14-turn circuit pushed the race into double overtime. On the second OT attempt, Chase Briscoe went off course in Turn 1 while racing for the lead with Denny Hamlin, was given a stop-and-go penalty for said infraction, and then turned Hamlin around in Turn 10.

Taking advantage of the madness? A.J. Allmendinger, the full-time Xfinity Series regular for Kaulig Racing who took the lead coming to the white flag and went on to claim his second career Cup victory.

Say it with us – “It’s Bristol, baby”

NASCAR’s return to Bristol Motor Speedway in September – minus the dirt – produced some true highlight-reel moments.

The Xfinity Series’ regular season finale ended with AJ Allmendinger, Austin Cindric and Justin Allgaier in contention for the win on the final lap. Coming out of the last turn, Cindric got into Allmendinger and they both slid across the finish line, with Allmendinger winning the race and the regular season title.

One night later in the Cup race, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick were racing for the lead late when contact between them cut down Elliott’s left front tire. After returning to the track several laps down, Elliott ran Harvick hard and then stayed in front of Harvick, which enabled Kyle Larson to catch Harvick and pass him for the win with four laps to go.

After the race, Larson celebrated while Elliott and Harvick confronted each other on pit road. Their feud was revived later in the playoffs at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval with two more incidents – and Elliott moving on in the post-season.

Bubba makes history

With rain threatening at Talladega Superspeedway in October, Bubba Wallace surged into the lead. But the most important move he made was the one he didn’t.

Three laps later, he stayed low down the backstretch to keep Brad Keselowski behind him instead of attempting to block Joey Logano. Ryan Preece was spun out of the pack and a wreck ensued to bring out a caution with Wallace still in front.

Then came the rain. And the waiting. And ultimately, the joy, as Wallace was declared race winner after 117 laps of a scheduled 188.

For the first time in 58 years, a Black driver had won in NASCAR’s premier division.

“This is for all those kids out there who want to have an opportunity, in whatever they want to achieve, to be the best in what they want to do,” Wallace told NBC Sports afterwards.

“You’re gonna go through a lot of bullshit. But you’ve always got to stay true to your path and not let the nonsense get to you and stay strong. Stay humble. Stay hungry.

“There have been plenty of times where I’ve wanted to give up, but you surround yourself with the right people and it’s moments like this that you appreciate.”

Temper, temper

Moments after taking the checkered flag in November at Martinsville Speedway, Alex Bowman had a visitor join him on the front stretch.

Denny Hamlin, whom Bowman bumped out of the lead with eight laps to go before winning in overtime, drove toward Bowman’s car. Bowman spun out of Hamlin’s way and his car briefly locked front bumpers with Hamlin’s before Hamlin backed up and drove off.

Hamlin was still able to clinch a spot in the Championship 4 (so did Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr., all of whom joined Kyle Larson). But that didn’t stop Hamlin from lighting into Bowman, calling him a “hack” that “gets his ass kicked by his teammates every week.”

Bowman said his contact with Hamlin wasn’t intentional, but also noted Hamlin’s own history at Martinsville: “He’s been on the other side of that. He’s crashed guys here for wins. I hate doing it. Obviously, I don’t want to crash somebody and I just got loose underneath and spun him out.”

The pit stop of a lifetime

Kyle Larson put it clearly after winning the season finale at Phoenix Raceway to claim his first series title: Without his final pit stop, he and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team would not be champions.

For much of the race, Larson’s car was down on performance and needed continuous adjustments. But he had two elements in his favor: A strong pit crew and the No. 1 stall on pit road, earned by winning pole position.

It all came together after a caution for debris with 30 laps to go. Larson entered pit road fourth, worst among the Championship 4 drivers. He came out first after his pit crew changed four tires in 11.8 seconds, their second-fastest stop of the year.

That was all Larson needed. He led the final, 24-lap sprint to the finish to cap off his historic season.

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.