End of stages at Talladega could have lasting impact in playoffs

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A spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs could have been determined in just a few laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

They weren’t the final laps of the race, but the final laps of Stage 1 and Stage 2. 

The end of the first stage saw a big swing for a couple of drivers that could impact on who advances and who doesn’t after next weekend’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

MORE: Chase Elliott wins at Talladega 

With six laps left in the opening stage, William Byron was second to Denny Hamlin.

Byron was in need of stage points because of the uncertainty of his place in the standings. NASCAR docked him 25 points for spinning Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the decision and will have the hearing this week. While car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that he felt the penalty was too severe in a three-race round, there’s no guarantee the appeal board will change the penalty or reduce it. 

With such unknowns, Byron’s focus was scoring as many points as possible since he entered the race eight points below the cutline. Sitting second in that opening stage put him in position to score the points he needed.

But when the the stage ended, Byron came across the line 11th — 0.036 seconds behind Erik Jones in 10th — and scored no stage points.

“I was working well with (Hamlin),” Byron said. “I tried to work to the bottom and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

“I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward.”

Byron wasn’t in position to score points in the second stage, finishing 13th. That left him as one of two playoff drivers not to score stage points (Christopher Bell was the other).

“It was frustrating the whole time,” Byron said. “I felt like the race was just going away from us. We couldn’t make anything happen. We were just kind of stuck. I don’t know what we need to do next time.”

When Byron failed to score points in the second stage, it only added to a challenging day and put more pressure on a better finish.

He managed only to place 12th. Byron finished with 25 points. He outscored only three playoff drivers.

The result is that Byron is 11 points below the cutline.

While the first stage was a harbinger of Byron’s woes Sunday, that stage proved critical for Austin Cindric.

The Daytona 500 winner was 15th with six laps to go in the stage. He finished fourth, collecting seven points — despite suffering some nose damage in an incident earlier in that stage.

“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. 

He got those with quick thinking.

“I think when everybody tries to scatter to do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive,” Cindric said. “I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. I’d call it 50-50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck. 

“It certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the (Charlotte) Roval.

Cindric entered the race seven points out of the last transfer spot. While he didn’t score any points in the second stage, his ninth-place finish led to a 35-point day. 

That gives him the same amount of points as Chase Briscoe, who owns the last transfer spot because he has the tiebreaker on Cindric in this round.

For Briscoe, he earned that tie by collecting one stage point. 

In the first stage, he was running outside the top 10 when he sensed a crash was likely and “decided to bail” to protect the car and avoid being in a crash.

That crash didn’t happen and he was left without stage points. In the second stage, Briscoe was 14th with two laps to go. He beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line by 0.035 seconds to place 10th and score that one stage point.

“You don’t think that one (point) is important until you see that you are tied,” Briscoe said. “One point could be really, really important for us next week.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps meets with Denny Hamlin

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin confirmed that he met with NASCAR President Steve Phelps before Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

The meeting came a day after Hamlin’s explosive comments to the media, saying the Next Gen car needed to be redesigned and blaming “bad leadership” by NASCAR for the safety concerns with the car.

Asked by NBC Sports about the meeting with Phelps, Hamlin said: “I don’t have any details on it. I’m grateful for Steve Phelps. He is a leader that we need. He is not who I directed any of my comments toward because he’s a huge asset for our sport.

“Me and Steve talk about much bigger and broader things than the safety of the cars. He’s got a lot bigger tasks ahead of him. I don’t task him or bog him down with knick-knack things like car safety.”

Asked if Phelps discussed Hamlin’s comments to the media in their meeting, Hamlin said: “We talked about that because we have that kind of relationship. I trust Steve. Best relationship I’ve had with any president of NASCAR. He’s done a lot for our sport. I made it very clear that I wasn’t directing anything at him.”

Hamlin’s frustration — and that of other drivers — has been the hard hits competitors have suffered in the car. The new car was designed to be stronger and better protect drivers in crashes similar to Ryan Newman’s airborne incident in the 2020 Daytona 500 and Joey Logano’s airborne crash in the April 2021 Talladega race. 

While the car has been improved for those accidents, the more common crashes, particularly those where the car backs into the wall, have been felt more by drivers.

Both Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman are out because of concussion-like symptoms after rear-end crashes. Busch, who has been out since late July, said this past week that he is “hopeful” to return this season. Car owner Rick Hendrick after Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway said that he is hopeful Bowman can be back as early as this coming week for the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

The injuries to Busch and Bowman and the hard hits have raised the tension in the Cup garage. 

Hamlin unleashed a torrent of criticism Saturday about the car and series officials.

Asked how the sport got to this point with the car, Hamlin said Saturday: “Bad leadership.”

Asked how to avoid the same thing from happening, Hamlin said: “New leadership.”

As for the changes that need to be made in NASCAR leadership, Hamlin said: “I don’t know. You can start at the top and work your way down.”

In regards to the car, Hamlin said Saturday: “The car needs to be redesigned. It needs a full redesign. It can still be called Next Gen, but it needs to be redesigned. It needs to be redesigned everywhere.”

Hamlin appeared on “Countdown to Green” before Sunday’s race on NBC and spoke with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton, who also leads the Drivers Advisory Council, about the car and his comments to the media.

“It’s not about what we can do right now, it’s what we can do about the future,” Hamlin said of the car. “In my mind, if we’re redesigning something for 2024, we need to be designing it now, testing it throughout the 2023 season and then implementing it for 2024. 

“There is no easy answer to this. This has been a buildup. We’ve been talking about this as drivers for over a year now. So that’s where the frustration has boiled from. 

“Certainly saying what can we do to fix it next week, it’s impossible. There’s a box that we’re in that we can’t get out of now. My thing is that while a (rear) clip is a really good thing —and I think it’s a start — we need to be in the redesign process of the entire car and that has to start now if we’re to implement that anytime in the next 12 to 14 months.”

Hamlin also said in that interview that he felt a responsibility to speak on behalf of drivers, particularly the younger drivers, on such issues. He noted that it was a mantle he and Kevin Harvick have taken.

“I do feel like at times that me and Kevin have the brunt of the responsibility to go out there and voice what we hear from our competitors and our peers. But as you are starting to see in the media, guys like Chase Elliott and others are starting to voice their displeasure and what they would like to see different as well.”

Chase Elliott wins Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Chase Elliott had the moves, the power and the drafting help when he needed them.

Elliott shot to the lead in a web of traffic in the final 5 miles and won Sunday’s 500-mile NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway. Elliott, winning for the fifth time this year, thus earned a spot in the Round of 8. It will mark Elliott’s sixth appearance in that playoff round.

Following Elliott at the finish were Ryan Blaney, Michael McDowell, Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin. Elliott’s win is the first by a playoff driver in this year’s playoffs.

Elliott led the last lap and nine others during the afternoon as 17 drivers owned first place for at least one lap on a typically competitive day at NASCAR’s biggest track. Seven drivers, including Elliott, led laps in double figures.

Blaney led nine of the final 17 laps in search of his first points win of the year but couldn’t hold off Elliott’s charge at the end.

The victory was huge for Elliott, who carries a platter full of playoff points (46) with him and will be in great shape when the next round begins in two weeks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Round of 12 will end Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

“It was a wild last couple of laps,” Elliott told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “I wasn’t super crazy about being on the bottom. Fortunately, I just go clear enough off of two to move up and had a good enough run to get out front.”

Despite a string of issues last week at Texas Motor Speedway and very public complaining by drivers this week about the Next Gen car, Sunday’s race was relatively calm by Talladega standards. There was an early-race multi-car wreck, but much of the rest of the race rolled along without serious incident.

With the win, Elliott jumped to the point lead. Blaney is second and Chastain third. Below the cutline entering the final race of the second round are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Bowman missed the race with concussion-like symptoms. He was replaced by Noah Gragson, who finished 19th.

MORE: NASCAR President Steve Phelps meets with Denny Hamlin

Powering through the top five, Elliott moved from the inside line to the outside in front of Erik Jones and benefitted from Jones’ push as he outran Blaney to the finish line.

As has been the case at so many Talladega races over the years, risky though impactful technique in the long drafting lines was a key. Approaching the finish line at the first two stages, Blaney and Elliott made excellent moves in the trioval to win the stages — Blaney the first and Elliott the second.

The last round of pit stops began with 28 laps to go. At the end of the pit cycle, Blaney, Chastain and Jones were at the front.

With 10 laps to go, Blaney led the lead drafting line, with Chastain and Todd Gilliland trailing. Jones led the other line.

The field was slowed by caution with seven laps to go when Daniel Hemric‘s car experienced engine trouble and stalled in the final pit row spot.

Bell took a big position hit on Lap 99 when he lost control entering pit road and slid. He lost a lap but rebounded to challenge near the top 10 in the final stage, finishing 17th.

The race hadn’t reached the halfway point of the first stage when a multi-car accident brought out the day’s second caution flag.

The wreck began on Lap 25 when rookie Harrison Burton lost control of his car in three-wide traffic entering Turn 1. Burton, looking for drafting help from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. behind him, was bumped by Stenhouse and slid to the left in the middle of a pack of traffic, causing drivers behind and around him to scramble.

Involved in the accident, in addition to Burton and Stenhouse, were Austin Cindric, Gragson, Justin Allgaier, Justin Haley, Ty Gibbs and Joey Logano.

MORE: Safety big topic of drivers meeting at Talladega

The early part of the race included some odd cooperation in Talladega’s famous draft. Racing one-two in tight formation were Hamlin, the leader, and William Byron, both gaining speed from their drafting. Last week at Texas, the two had major issues, resulting in Byron bumping Hamlin into a spin under caution and being nailed by a NASCAR penalty.

Stage 1 winner: Ryan Blaney

Stage 2 winner: Chase Elliott

Who had a good race: Chase Elliott zoomed to the front with bold moves in the final laps and scored his fifth win of the year. … Ryan Blaney does everything but win. Sunday marked his best finish (second) of the year. …Michael McDowell was active in the front-line draft over the final miles and finished a strong third. He has 12 top-10 finishes this year, a personal record. … Todd Gilliland (seventh) scored his second Cup top-10 finish.

Who had a bad race: Joey Logano was involved in an early-race accident and rebounded to race near the front but finished 27th. He fell from the point lead to fifth. … Christopher Bell slid onto pit road attempting a green-flag pit stop. He finished 17th and is 22 points below the playoff cutline. … Kyle Larson was basically a non-factor, finishing 18th.

Next: The Round of 12 will end Oct. 9 on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Four drivers will be eliminated, and eight will advance.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”

Denny Hamlin calls out NASCAR leadership for Next Gen concerns

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin cites “bad leadership” from NASCAR for creating a car that he says needs to be redesigned after two drivers have suffered concussion-like symptoms in crashes this year.

Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have been most outspoken about the safety of the car this year. Chase Elliott spoke up Saturday about how “disappointed” he is “that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in.” 

Hamlin said other drivers must join them in being heard.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

NASCAR had not offered a response to Hamlin’s comments as of Saturday afternoon.

Driver frustrations with the Next Gen car continue to grow, as Alex Bowman became the second driver to be forced to miss at least a race for concussion-like symptoms. 

Bowman crashed last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and experienced headaches and other symptoms of a concussion earlier this week, according to Hendrick Motorsports President Jeff Andrews. 

Bowman went to a doctor on Thursday and the team announced that day Bowman would not race Sunday. No timetable for his return has been announced. Noah Gragson will drive Bowman’s car Sunday.

Kurt Busch, who drives for Hamlin’s 23XI Racing, continues to be out because of a head injury he suffered after he crashed July 23 at Pocono Raceway. Busch said this week that he is “hopeful” of racing this season.

Hamlin unleashed a torrent of criticisms Saturday about the car and series officials for an issue he said drivers brought up more than a year ago.

Asked how the sport got to this point with the car, Hamlin said: “Bad leadership.”

Asked how to avoid the same thing from happening, Hamlin said: “New leadership.”

As for the changes that need to be made in NASCAR leadership, Hamlin said: “I don’t know. You can start at the top and work your way down.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on the rear clip and rear bumper of the car. That’s an improvement that could be made to the car for next season. A complaint about the car is how stiff the rear is and how rear-end impacts have felt more violent to drivers this season. The crash test is the first since a full car crash test last December. 

For Hamlin, the rear is only a start to what needs to be done to the car.

“The car needs to be redesigned,” Hamlin said. “It needs a full redesign. It can still be called Next Gen, but it needs to be redesigned.

“It needs to be redesigned everywhere. Front, middle, rear, competition, the whole thing needs to be redesigned. We’ve got a tough Martinsville race coming up. It’s going to be tough. This thing is just going to get exposed about how bad it races. That’s just a part of it. Competition and safety, we’d like to have it all better, but certainly we just took a step back in safety and competition this year.”

Hamlin also knows it’s too late for a redesign for next year.

“If I were to run this and say, ‘All right, we’re going to have a new car,’ we’d already be done with testing right now for next year’s car,” Hamlin said. “We haven’t even begun. We’re just way too behind. This whole sport is behind.”

But Hamlin said it was “feasible” for NASCAR to do a redesign of the car.

“It’s just (that) NASCAR has to concede that they’re not capable and let the teams do it,” he said.

That’s not likely. NASCAR has a contract with the suppliers of each part and those deals, while they can be broken under certain circumstances, are multi-year deals. 

Hamlin said drivers brought up concerns about the car last year. There had been concerns about the car and how hard the impact felt after William Byron’s crash in testing at Auto Club Speedway in March 2020.

“We actually, as the drivers, didn’t do that docu-series last year because we didn’t feel comfortable with this Next Gen car and the lack of the safety testing that had been done before they started announcing that they were going to run it,” Hamlin said. “We threw up red flags over a year ago and they just didn’t respond. They just kept pushing this car has got to be on the track at all cost. At all cost.”

In an interview last month, John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of Racing Innovation, told NBC Sports that he feels one misunderstanding with the car is the collaboration between NASCAR, teams and manufacturers.

“I think that sometimes when you read the driver quotes and the team feedback, crew chiefs are posting things on Twitter, it creates the sense of NASCAR vs. them vs. the world,” Probst said. 

“Really, it isn’t like that. I wish people could see how well we actually do work with the engineers on these teams, sorting through the problems.

“I feel like we work hand-in-hand with them, but a lot of times when it gets to the public eye, for whatever reason, or if it’s in the heat of the moment, it comes across as though ‘NASCAR is making us do this,’ or ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ but I think, in reality, that is so far from the truth.”