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How Dale Earnhardt Jr. reignited Justin Allgaier’s competitive fire

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CONCORD, N.C. — With 12 races left in the 2015 Cup season, Justin Allgaier was ready to tap out of racing.

The 29-year-old’s enthusiasm for competing had worn thin after two years of middling results driving the No. 51 Chevrolet for HScott Motorsports. His best result through 60 races was eighth earlier that spring at Bristol.

It had already been announced he wouldn’t return to the team in 2016. His spot would be taken by Clint Bowyer.

Allgaier, who had three Xfinity wins at the time, called it one of the “darker” periods of his career. It was a long way from 2018, where he enters this weekend’s Xfinity playoff opener at Richmond as the No. 1 seed.

“I was ready to walk away,” Allgaier said Tuesday at the Xfinity Playoff Media Day. “At the end of that season I was trying to figure out an exit strategy, right? What does the future hold, where do you go from here?”

All this weighed on Allgaier on Sept. 6, the day of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Then Allgaier climbed in the bed of a truck with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Allgaier doesn’t know if it was the result of an “abnormally bad” qualifying effort for Earnhardt or a “fantastic effort” by himself.

Either way, Allgaier was set to start the Southern 500 in 27th, right next to the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Through that, the two were paired in the same truck to take them around the 1.366-mile track following driver introductions.

By the end of their trip from the start-finish line to pit road, Allgaier said “there was a fire lit” underneath him.

Earnhardt told NBC Sports he doesn’t remember exactly what he told him that day, but Allgaier recalled what the sport’s 15-time most popular driver discussed with him as they waved to fans waiting for the race.

“Dale’s big thing to me was, ‘Man, I’m sorry that things didn’t work out the way they wanted them to. … It wasn’t for a lack of effort. … I really thought if you guys could get something figured out you guys would be a lot better. … I’ve been impressed with what you’ve done on the race track and how you’ve driven the car … In the right situation you would excel.'”

Justin Allgaier races against Carl Edwards during the 2015 Southern 500. (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

As they slowly traversed the “Lady in Black,” Allgaier said they covered “20 years of life in that one lap.”

“He had a lot of confidence in me in a time when I promise you I didn’t have the confidence in myself to go out there and think we could run good in anything,” Allgaier said. “It was like everything that I had thought that I needed somebody to say, God just put it right in Dale’s mouth to say it.  I heard everything I needed to hear.”

Allgaier doesn’t remember where he finished the Southern 500 (33rd), but he knows he had a bad race.

“It was one of those days where you want to forget it,” Allgaier said. “I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. I was in a better place, I was happy. I was ready to go.”

Within two weeks Allgaier was having discussions with Earnhardt and JR Motorsports about joining their Xfinity Series team with sponsorship in tow from Brandt, which had sponsored Allgaier in Cup and Xfinity since 2011.

About a month after that, Allgaier was “signed, sealed, delivered (and) ready to race” for JRM.

“I didn’t want to fail again,” Allgaier said. “And I knew I had the tools to go do it and I had the people around me and we’ve been lucky enough to do that. This year’s kind of the year that it all perfectly came together and everything worked.”

Justin Allgaier and wife Ashley pose with their daughter Harper after the Lilly Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sept. 10 (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images).

Three years and four days after the Darlington conversation, Allgaier, now 32, sat on the frontstretch of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He and JRM’s No. 7 team had just won the Lilly Diabetes 250.

In his third year with JRM, it was Allgaier’s fifth Xfinity win of 2018, a career-best. It also gave him seven wins in the last two seasons.

Now he and his family were about to kiss the bricks on the start-finish line, a tradition for winners at the historic track.

His wife, Ashley, looked at their daughter, Harper Grace.

“I hope one day you realize the gravity of what you’re about to do,” Allgaier recalled her saying.

“It hit me,” Allgaier said. “‘Oh man, I might not be able to do this. I might not be able to bend down here and kiss these bricks.’ That was a cool moment. That was something special.

“That’s probably what’s kept me in this sport. There was a time in my life where I was ready to quit racing and go home and not ever get back behind the wheel of a race car ever again. To have those moments now, I think (Harper Grace) very clearly understands that it is hard to win in this sport and I think she’s enjoying these Victory Lane moments when she can because you don’t know when the next one may or may not come.”

Allgaier will look to make more special moments in the playoffs, which begins Friday at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“It’s taken me almost 10 years to win five races, then this year alone we’ve won five,” Allgaier said. “That’s special. That doesn’t happen because I changed who I was. Right? I didn’t all of sudden learn how to drive at the beginning of 2018 and say, ‘Hey, let’s go win a bunch of races.’ That’s not all what happened. Everything has clicked.”

Allgaier added, “We’re doing our jobs together in harmony and we’re executing and that’s what makes the difference. It’s every piece of the puzzle that goes together and it’s just been fun.”

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Friday 5: Time for NASCAR to schedule one-day shows

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LAS VEGAS — Indianapolis Motor Speedway showed NASCAR this week what the sport’s future could and should be.

Two series racing on one weekday. No practice. No qualifying. Just racing.

As NASCAR looks to make its schedule more dynamic, the idea of one-day shows for Cup has been discussed.

Those talks should go further.

Run the Xfinity Series on a weekday and the Cup Series that night in prime time.

Fans want racing. Give them back-to-back events. Don’t waste time with practice or qualifying. Set the lineup based on points and go.

“I think that’s the kind of open-mindedness that we need to see more of in NASCAR, honestly,” Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports on Thursday of the idea. “I know that I’ve been in some meetings with TV partners and NASCAR trying to work on weekday races, especially during the summer. Hopefully it’s on the horizon, sooner than later.”

Fans saw a doubleheader Monday at Indy after rain washed out both the Xfinity and Cup races that weekend.

Such a schedule could work for one race, maybe two a season. This isn’t about making the entire schedule one-day shows, but the approach would compress the schedule. That, along with limiting most tracks to one Cup event per season, could put the season finale in September instead of November.

Kevin Harvick, who has talked often about the need for bold ideas with scheduling, told NBC Sports that the key to such a one-day schedule is that “you have to protect the integrity of the racing.” 

But he says one-day shows could be possible.

The biggest challenge could come from track operators, who likely will raise concerns that a one-day event could reduce how many people camp and attend the event.

As NASCAR looks to race on a weeknight, limit how many days teams are at the track and alter the length of the schedule, the overriding question must be what’s best for the sport. In some cases, track operators might lose out to what’s best for the sport. In other cases, maybe it’s the drivers or teams.

To not do anything is the wrong approach. Frankly, that’s not a tactic NASCAR is taking, but words eventually need to be turned into actions.

Harvick suggests more dramatic measures.

He notes that the most talked about race this season is one that hasn’t taken place yet.

The debut of Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval later this month has had those in the industry and elsewhere talking. Chaos, conflict and crashes are common themes from drivers, leery of the race that ends the first round of the playoffs.

“That really is something that everybody sees as unique,” Harvick said. “We need more unique events. You need a story before the story happens.”

He says more can be done with the schedule to create similar stories.

“Why shouldn’t Darlington have a playoff race once in a while?” Harvick said. “Why shouldn’t Bristol have a playoff race once in a while? Why is the championship race in Homestead every year? That’s for us? I don’t think so.

“I think it would be better to rotate (the title race) around. I think coming to Vegas for the first race of the playoffs is great. Not that Chicago was a bad spot to start it (but) starting there every year gets stale. You’ve got to keep it fresh.”

That means new venues, date changes and other ideas. That also should include one-day shows in the summer that have the Xfinity and Cup Series race back-to-back.

“I think the way the world is today and … the ask of the fans, the expense of things, it’s a valid option,” seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said of the notion. “When you look back to the late ‘90s the way fans consumed television and their avid love of our sport and the love of the automobile, all of that, they’d want a seven-day festival for a race.

“It’s just times have changed. I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all. Times have changed.”

The 2019 schedule is set, but 2020 can be a time for the sport to move forward.

2. A tiresome trend

Many drivers talked Thursday at NASCAR Playoff Media Day about needing to avoid mistakes to advance in the Cup playoffs, which begin Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Whether NASCAR is calling tire violations more closely on pit road to set a tone or teams are trying to push things, such penalties are up dramatically the past two weeks.

NASCAR called a total of 11 penalties for tire violations the past two weeks at Indianapolis (seven such penalties) and Darlington (four).

The 11 penalties for tire violations are more than NASCAR called the previous seven races combined (10 such penalties called).

In the last nine races, Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew has been penalized for three tire violations, more than any other team. Next is Austin Dillon’s pit crew, which has been called for two such violations in that time.

3. Playoff wedding

It’s one thing for drivers to be engaged during the season but married — and during the playoffs?

No.

At least until this season.

Kyle Larson and fiancee Katelyn Sweet are scheduled to marry Sept. 26 — four days before the inaugural Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, which will determine what four drivers will be eliminated from the playoffs.

Why that date?

“Katelyn wants a warm wedding, and I race during the offseason so I didn’t want to mess up my offseason plans,” Larson said Thursday. “It happened to work out that we can do it right before the Roval there. So, it’s coming fast, and I am ready to get it done.”

I have kind of let her handle most of (the planning) and I will be there for the rehearsal dinner, the wedding and hopefully we don’t practice on Thursday. Because that will be rough.”

Cup teams will not practice that Thursday, so Larson will be OK.

4. Fond memories

Rockingham Speedway, which hosted NASCAR races from 1965-2004, was recently sold and the investors want to bring racing back to the 1-mile track at some point.

Jamie McMurray, who has been mum about his future with Chip Ganassi Racing, won the final four Xfinity races there.

McMurray was recently asked about the track and recalled not those wins but a moment with his fellow drivers.

Rockingham used to be the host of the pit crew competition. Drivers left from the backstretch pits and come down the frontstretch pit road for their stop. While they waited for the event to begin, they hung out along the backstretch pits.

“My memory of Rockingham is sitting on the backstretch (pit wall),” McMurray said. “I was sitting back there and Mark Martin, who had won I don’t know how many races at Rockingham (two Cup and 11 Xfinity races in his career). Mark is notorious for never giving himself credit and telling you how great you are. I remember Mark going: “You’re the guy now; you’re the man. I wish I could have done that.’ Like yeah, right, this is Mark Martin.

“That’s one of my favorite memories, my rookie year (in Cup) sitting back there with Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. I think Sterling (Marlin) might have been in that, so there (were) good stories being told.’’

5. Looking to keep a streak alive 

Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one race on a 1.5-mile track 24 consecutive seasons. That streak is in jeopardy this year. Hendrick’s only win so far this season came on the road course at Watkins Glen with Chase Elliott.

Four races remain this year on 1.5-mile tracks: Las Vegas, Kansas, Texas and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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What drivers said after Indy

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Brad Keselowski — Winner: “I gotta give credit where credit is due. My crew chief, Paul Wolfe, made a heck of a call to pit there late in that run and the yellow came out and we had new tires and started eighth and it was kind of like it gave me the ball. You know how that goes. I had to make a play. I knew it was going to be tough. We weren’t a dominant car by any means but Paul and everyone executed an incredible race. I just had to do my job and here I am in victory lane at the Brickyard. Man, I wish RP (Roger Penske) was here. I know he is watching at home. What a day!”

Erik Jones — Finished 2nd: “Yeah, I would say that’s a pretty accurate representation. We just had an up and down day and it was kind of a weird race the way that cautions were falling. We never really seemed to get in a groove and get a feel for where our car was capable of. I thought maybe we had about an eighth-place car. We stayed out at the end and I was kind of like ‘man, I think we’re going to get hosed here on the restart with these guys taking tires’. Our Toyota Camry was fast and we had a good restart. The 14 (Clint Bowyer) spun his tires. We were able to get clear and it worked out. I was hoping to be a little bit closer to the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and the 2 (Brad Keselowski) when they were side by side to get a big run, but we weren’t quite close enough to do that. A strong day. A race like we needed to have when we’re in the playoffs – when we’re not a car that can contend, just persevere and make the most of what we can and that’s what we did today.”

DENNY HAMLIN — Finished 3rd: “I had the race pretty well in hand. Landon Cassill wrecked for no apparent reason at the end and then we just got roughed up by the 2 (Brad Keselowski) there at the end – on new tires. Very unfortunate, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. Sometimes cautions don’t fall your way. We were able to survive the first few, but allowed those guys to – with all those cautions and meaningless wrecks – to the guys on new tires to be right on us and that’s what happened.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 4th: “Disaster is a good word. It was not a smooth day by any means from start to finish, but our Jimmy John’s Ford was fast and that was the highlight of the day.”

CLINT BOWYER — Finished 5th: “You’ve got to use good runs like that for a confidence-booster for the playoffs. It was a good run for us. Man, it’s a game of luck. There wasn’t really any strategy. You can’t strategize for cautions that you don’t know are gonna exist. I felt like we were definitely faster than the 11, but when he beat us out of the pits there, that position nobody passed anybody for the lead and unless they were a huge advantage on tires, and then all of a sudden the cautions come out and hand the 2 the win. That’s what’s frustrating, but that’s the nature of the beast here.

Kurt Busch — Finished 6th: “We have to stick with our strengths and that is consistency. We’ve qualified well all year. We’ve had good pit strategy and we just have to make sure we don’t make any mistakes that hurt us and we lose a lot of track position. Today, we had one bad pit stop and it’s like, ‘You know what, the car is fast.’ We just have to take our time getting back up there, instead of trying to blitz through there. Sometimes when you do that you get caught up in some wrecks, so, right now, it’s the playoffs and we’ll just work our way through and advance through the rounds.”

Jamie McMurray — Finished 7th: “You just do whatever you have to in order to win and it’s the same strategy that the No. 11 and No. 14 were on. I think we all pitted really close. It was hard to pass today and having that track position at the end I didn’t think… I mean I wanted to stay out because it was hard to make up any ground. When the No. 42 pitted I was worried about how many behind us might follow him in. We definitely made the right call. If the last caution hadn’t come out we would have run third or fourth, yeah it was a good day”.

Kyle Busch — Finished 8th: “Hopefully we can kick (the playoffs) off well. Hopefully we can kick them off with a win. We’ve not been to victory lane in Las Vegas in a long, long time. I’m hoping that we can get back to victory lane there and get ourselves started off with this playoff exactly the way we need so we can get our way through and not have to worry about the Roval.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 10th: “From the start of this race, it was all about track position. Tires didn’t mean a whole lot. Our No. 31 Grainger Camaro ZL1 was decent but really aero-dependent. If I got really close to someone, the car would plow. If someone got behind me, the car would snap loose. Our laps times in clean air were as good as the top-five cars, but we just needed the track position and a shot at the end. Fortunately for us our strategy paid off and we were in contention with 10 laps to go. We lined up sixth on the final restart, but with all that dirty air, it just wasn’t going to happen for us. All in all, we had absolutely no practice or qualifying so great job by my crew chief Luke Lambert and the rest of the No. 31 crew for unloading a competitive car for me at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Our regular season may be over, but our plan remains the same, win. We’ve got 10 races to keep improving on our Camaro and 10 more chances to win.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 11th: “We were running fourth or fifth (on the final pit stop) and green flag stops came and I missed my box. I went to the wrong box. I went to the 22 box like I was in the XFINITY race and missed mine. The bad thing was they were both set up the exact same in each race. The 12 was before the 22, so I had to come around the 12 in the XFINITY race and I just had a brain fart and cost us a bunch of time. That was dumb on my part, but I thought we had a fourth or fifth-place car today, and you never know how it would have played out at the end. It stinks, but it’s cool that Penske got one car to win here. That’s cool for that team, but we’ll put all this behind us and go to Vegas. That should be a pretty good track for us.”

Matt Kenseth — Finished 12th: “We were fairly competitive. I felt like we had a top five to seven car. It’s hard to tell exactly because we weren’t always on the same tires, but we kept putting ourselves behind with the way the cautions fell and the way we did our strategy. And then the car fell off the jack when we were running fourth or whatever. That was pretty much the end of our day.”

Joey Logano — Finished 13th: “We just weren’t very good from the get-go. We swung at everything we could swing at and just kept shooting ourselves in the foot all day.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 14th: “Our race was good. I felt like our car handled pretty decent there. The last little bit of the race just didn’t work out for us. We pitted for tires and then on that restart they all checked-up in front of me and I stacked up into (Ryan) Blaney and got some nose damage and then my speed was just really bad after that. I was tighter in the corners and slower down the straightaways. It allowed people to pass me pretty easily. So, felt like we had a third to fifth-place car and ended up 14th, so a little disappointing, but good that we had speed.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 15th: “I felt like we actually got our NAPA Camaro pretty good there at one point in time. I say pretty good; it was better than we have been here; better than I typically am. So, that was encouraging. We had some decent pace. Those restarts there at the end were just terrible for whoever was on the outside lane and I, unfortunately, got a couple of them. You could make it go if you were up towards the front. I certainly couldn’t figure it out so maybe it was me. But, we’ll go on to Vegas.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 16th: “I’m just proud that I’ve made every Playoff since NASCAR started them, so that’s a big honor for me. Now we just need to go the rounds and get hot at the right time.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 17th: “That was a good day for us. A top 20 at Indy is always a good day. I was really happy to get those last few spots at the end. We beat the cars we needed to beat to get into that top 25 in points. I’m really proud of everybody. We made good adjustments and got it good there at the end when we needed it. Happy to have a good run for John Andretti and Race for Riley. It was special to have them on the car.”

William Byron — Finished 19th: “We kind of just played some different strategy and couldn’t keep our track position up front, but overall it was a good effort. I thought we made some decent adjustments and good things, but still just got to keep working.”

Regan Smith — Finished 20th: “What a crazy day at Indianapolis. My first time back in the car in a while. I’ve got to tell you something, it’s just as wild as it’s always been and just as difficult as it has always been, very aero sensitive race cars. We hear the drivers talk about it every week. I got to experience it first hand today, but I had a lot of fun battling in the No. 95 car. Bob Leavine and his whole team have done a very nice job of putting a group of guys together, appreciative to get to drive for them. At one point, I looked over and I’m side-by-side with Jimmie Johnson, so not a bad day for us. I wanted to stay out of the middle of all the points stuff that was going on there naturally and let that play out for those guys that had some battles going on. Nonetheless, Indianapolis, this place is magical and will be back here next year for the Brickyard 400.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 21st: “Today was a good day for our GEICO Camaro ZL1 team. It was our third straight 21st-place finish. That may not seem like a lot to many people but that’s great consistency for our team. We’re improving and getting better week in and week out. I’m proud of our effort coming down to the last stretch of the season. We’re getting stronger as a team and we will keep making gains.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 22nd: “Frustrating day because we had a pretty good car. We just couldn’t ever keep the track position we needed to. The No. 9 car chopped us off going into (Turn) 4 and instead of wrecking him, I wrecked the No. 22 and then we blew a tire because of it. The playoffs are coming up though, here we go.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 23rd: “I feel good. I feel like we’ve got fast race cars and we’ve got a chance to go up there and compete to win races and go far into the playoffs. Just thinking about today and another lost opportunity for us. We had a car capable of challenging to win and run up front and we just keep having things pop up. Today, we had a flat right-rear tire running third getting ready to pass Blaney for second, so we keep having things go wrong and it’s unfortunate. But one of these days our luck is going to change and hopefully it starts this week at Vegas and when our luck changes, we’re gonna put our Smithfield Ford Fusion in Victory Lane. We’ve been too fast and had too good of a car lately these last couple of months to not put it all together.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 33rd: “I was watching the scoreboard a little bit. If the No. 1 (McMurray) won, he deserved to be in it more than we did. I kind of had that attitude all weekend. If somebody else wins, we can’t control that, you know? It was a pretty miserable day. I hate it for my guys. I hate it for the No. 47 (AJ Allmendinger) as well. I don’t know if I came down on his door too much or if he just got loose. Whatever it was, it was a bummer for both of us. I hate that. But, we’ll move on from it. It wasn’t a good day but at least we finished and we’ll move on to Vegas.”

AJ ALLMENDINGER — Finished 37th: “I was under Alex (Bowman) just trying to stay off of him. I was hoping I could get clear enough getting into the corner and he didn’t lift. Once he did that, I knew, I was just trying to do everything I could to stay off of him and it’s just so tight there. Once I got loose, there was nothing I could do. I know he is in the Playoff hunt, so I didn’t want to do that.”

BUBBA WALLACE — Finished 38th: “I felt the same. It scared the hell out of me, for a second; and I spun around so fast and I think I dropped the window net before I even spun out to let everybody know I’m fine. But after it slowed down and got on track I said we’re done. The brakes blew up or broke or something and we got killed there. It felt like an hour and a half later. It’s unfortunate. We’ve got to go back to the shop and figure out if it was brakes or a tire coming apart and ripping the brake line off. But, I had no sign of any indication before. It just went around. So, it’s unfortunate. I thought we were starting to make some headway. We were struggling on center exit, but I’m just glad it wasn’t like Pocono again.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 40th: “Left-front brake rotor exploded and went through the hood. I thought I blew a tire initially going into (turn) one there and I was like ‘oh this is going to hurt’, but the car kept turning luckily and I was able to keep it off the wall. Just brake rotor exploded. I don’t know what was going on with the brakes. We had major issues from the start of the race. Obviously, all that kind of compounded into having a major brake issue. It’s unfortunate. The Auto-Owners Toyota was really fast. As hard as it is to pass here, we were getting there making our way to the front. I felt like any time we had clean air, we had really good speed. Wish we could have raced all day and seen what we could have done with them, but hopefully we’ll get this bad luck out of the way before the playoffs start next week.””

Kyle Larson likes progress of his cars but says team needs to improve

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Kyle Larson’s path to a championship is quite clear.

He sees his cars getting faster — he led 284 laps last week at Darlington before finishing third after he was beat off pit road by Brad Keselowski. Monday, Larson felt he had another strong car but issues on pit road and on the track left him with a 14th-place effort.

“I feel like we had a third-to-fifth-place car, so that is good,” Larson told NBC Sports after the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We’re still horrible on pit road. That’s discouraging. We’ll clean it up. I made mistakes on pit road as well. So I wasn’t happy with myself and my performance on pit road, but our pit crew needs to be better if we want to win the championship.”

Larson’s day turned after a pit stop when some cars did not pit toward the end of the race. That put Larson in the middle of the pack. He said the inside line was stacked up on a restart and he suffered damage to the front end of his car and the hood.

“I was super slow on the straightaways after that and would get ate up and passed after that,” Larson said. “I was tight in the corners after that. That last little run didn’t work out for us.

“Wish we wouldn’t have gotten all stacked up there into (Turn) 1 because I felt that I maybe could have drove maybe up to the top five. Disappointed with that but happy with the speed we had in the car. We didn’t have the dominant speed that we had last week, but we were competitive. Better than we were a month ago. So I’m excited about the playoffs.”

Top-five finish at Indy does little to make Denny Hamlin happy

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Denny Hamlin’s best finish in more than three months meant little to him after he lost the lead in Monday’s Brickyard 400 coming to the white flag.

Hamlin’s third-place finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway normally would be seen as a way to build momentum into the playoffs, which begins next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But Hamlin would have none of that. He was frustrated with his finish and with some other cars.

“I don’t care about the playoffs at this moment. All I care about is not winning this race,” said Hamlin, who sought to add an Indianapolis victory to the crown jewel wins he’s scored in the Daytona 500 and Southern 500.

“It’s big on my list of races I wanted to win and the team gave me the car and we certainly were capable of doing that.”

Had he won, it would have left him needing to win only the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to triumph in each of the sport’s four major races.

Instead, his chances went away after a caution with six laps to go for a crash between Landon Cassill and Jeffrey Earnhardt. That caution eliminated Hamlin’s lead and gave Brad Keselowski, who was on fresher tires, the chance to pass Hamlin for the win.

“Just those meaningless cautions at the end by drivers multiple laps down,” Hamlin said. “What they’re doing crashing with three laps to go, I have no idea. It cost us the race.

Hamlin’s finish Monday was his first top-five result since placing third at Charlotte in May.

“We deserved to win this race,” said Hamlin, who led 37 of 160 laps, tying Clint Bowyer for most laps led. “We had the fastest car or one of them. Us and (Bowyer) were very strong. I hate that the cars that caused the caution had nothing to do with this race.”