Even With Five Wins, Larson Keeps Eyes On Points

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 9 2021

Kyle Larson keeps piling up wins. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. _ Kyle Larson put the brakes on Chase Elliott’s recent domination at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, when the difference between Hendrick Motorsports’ latest Victory Lane celebration and a muted mea culpa was measured in 2.430-seconds.

Larson’s victory in Sunday’s 35th annual Go Bowling at The Glen snapped Elliott’s two-race NASCAR Cup Series winning streak on the historic 2.45-mile/seven-turn layout. Larson’s fifth win of 2021 moved the 29-year-old Californian into a first-place point tie (at 917) with Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing for the Regular-Season Championship with three races remaining before the Playoffs.

I mean, I’ve been worried about the Playoffs all season long,” said Larson, who started fourth and posted second and fourth-place finishes in the opening two stages of the 90-lap/220.5-mile event. “Every stage I’m thinking about it, every race win I’m thinking about it. I want to just keep racking up those points because I think it was (Kevin) Harvick last year, he had a bunch of points _ Playoff points, bonus points _ and he still missed the Final Four.

“You still have to execute. But if you can gain points, it’ll make your life a little bit easier. Great to get another five points today, and hopefully we can keep winning and keep stacking them up.”

Larson’s 11th career Cup victory also was the 24th all-time for HMS on a road-course, extending the organization’s record as Cup Series leader on NASCAR’s twisties. In 23 points-paying Cup races this season, Hendrick Motorsports drivers have visited Victory Lane 11 times, most-ever at this point of the year. Larson also won the non-points/$1-million NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway on June 13. 

“Yeah, it’s awesome,” said Larson, driver of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. “It really just shows how good the organization is, all the people that they’ve assembled at their race shop, all the men and women. All four of us (teammates Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman) could not be getting these wins like we have been without them.”

Larson is in the midst of a career-rejuvenating run in his first season with Rick Hendrick’s juggernaut. Recall that Larson was fired by team-owner Chip Ganassi early in the 2020 season after he was recorded uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event. Larson spent the COVID-19-impacted season barnstorming and winning on the nation’s dirt tracks. Hendrick _ aka “Mr. H” _hired Larson last October to drive the No. 5 Chevy associated with two-time Cup champ “Texas” Terry Labonte and Ricky Hendrick, Rick’s late son.

Larson now has finished either first or second 10 times through the season’s first 23 races. Sunday’s result also marked HMS’ eighth victory in the last 11 races and the fourth time Larson and Elliott have finished 1-2, including the third occasion on a road-course. 

Larson led the final 26 laps, taking the point for good from Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., who had paced the field for a race-best 34 laps.

Elliott, meanwhile, trucked around Truex through the track’s Bus Stop section with nine laps remaining to secure second place in a relentless pursuit of P1. Elliott began the weekend deflecting media questions about a possible three-peat at The Glen, site of his first Cup victory in August 2018 and a repeat performance in 2019. The series did not compete here in 2020 due to travel quarantine restrictions mandated by New York State during the pandemic.

Elliott was scheduled to start 11th under NASCAR’s Metric Qualifying system. But his No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro and Christopher Bell’s No. 20 STANLEY Toyota Camry were assessed L1 penalties by NASCAR’s garage police for rear-window air deflector violations Sunday morning. In fact, Elliott’s Camaro failed inspection twice.

Crew chiefs Alan Gustafson (Elliott) and Adam Stevens (Bell) were ejected from the facility, and both the Hendrick and Gibbs organizations were penalized with the loss of 10 driver and owner points and a $25,000 fine.

Both penalized cars were forced to start from the rear of the 37-car field, negating Bell’s scheduled seventh-place grid spot.

Elliott steadily carved through the field through the 20 laps of Stage 1, finishing eighth. But he dealt with an unforced error on Lap 30 during Stage 2, flat-spotting his tires during a lazy spin that forced him into an unplanned pit stop. That gaffe dropped Elliott to 36th. At the end of Stage 2 on Lap 40, Elliott was a distant 33rd and appeared to be a non-factor.

The early portion of Stage 3 was shaping up as a three-way battle among Truex, Bell and Larson when Elliott returned to the top-10 on Lap 52. Larson broke up the JGR 1-2 on Lap 55, when contact with Bell sent his Toyota into a spin that dropped him to 10th. Elliott now was running in seventh. A series of green flag pit stops on Lap 57 proved pivotal, as Larson’s crew got him out before Truex for track position. That cycle also saw Elliott advance to as high as second on Lap 59 before he pitted on Lap 60 and dropped to 12th.

“Our pit crew did a great job on the green flag stop and got us out in front of the No. 19,” said Larson, who is working with crew chief Cliff Daniels. “We were able to kind of maintain that gap for a little while and then eventually start to pull away. Thankfully, the No. 9 was not close enough there at the end because he was really, really fast.”

Larson inherited the lead when Kurt Busch of Stewart-Haas Racing pitted under green on Lap 65, with Truex in second and Elliott in fifth. Chase moved around Kyle Busch on Lap 71 and into third, eventually passing Truex through the Bus Stop on Lap 82. Larson’s lead over his teammate at that point was 5.425- seconds, and shrinking. When Larson took the white flag on Lap 89 after maneuvering through a gaggle of lapped traffic, his advantage was down to 2.854-seconds. But a mistake-free final lap secured Larson’s margin of victory of 2.430-seconds. 

“Chase was already catching me pretty quick, even with me being in open track,” said Larson, addressing the lapped cars. “When I caught those, I think, four cars and got into the No. 38 (of Anthony Alfredo), I thought I would look at my mirror and the No. 9 would be right on me. But thankfully I had a comfortable enough gap to where I could make a mistake like that.

“I guess I was the only guy that could hold off Chase there at the end. He was so fast. Yeah, I was wondering kind of how he was, and my team was doing a good job of keeping me aware of the gap and how it was shrinking. I knew he was really fast and just trying to judge the gap in my head and manage it and not make as many mistakes. Hopefully he wouldn’t be to my back bumper, but then we caught that thick traffic and I got held up a lot right there. Thankfully, I had a big enough gap.”

Elliott, 25, had won six of the previous seven Cup road-course races, including at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., on the Fourth of July. Elliott’s seventh overall road-course win moved him into third place on NASCAR’s all-time list behind NASCAR Hall of Famers Tony Stewart (eight wins) and Sir Jeff Gordon of HMS (nine).

If Elliott had three-peated Sunday, he would have broken a tie with Kyle Busch among active drivers for most Cup wins at The Glen. He also would have become the third Cup driver to score three consecutive wins at WGI, a record shared by Hall of Famers Mark Martin (1993, ’94, ‘95) during his tenure with Roush Fenway Racing and Gordon (1997, ’98, ‘99) at HMS.

Gustafson was replaced atop Elliott’s pit box by Tom Gray, the team’s lead engineer.

Asked if another lap or two might have allowed him to catch Larson, Elliott said, “Who knows? The race was 90 laps and that was the end of it. I made too many mistakes to get the win, unfortunately. I messed up too late in the race and that’s what ultimately cost us.

“Super-fast car and couldn’t be more proud of HMS. Been kind of an uphill battle all day, but everybody was just super-prepared coming into the day and our NAPA team just did a really good job of fighting it. We’ll move on and see where it goes.”

Larson made it a point to publicly square things with Bell over their paint-trading episode in Turn 1.

“I want to say a big apology to Christopher Bell,” Larson said. “I definitely made a mistake getting into him. But yeah, he would pull me off of (Turn) 7 every time and that time I maintained, and I was out-braking him in the other laps. I thought I could out-brake him and get all the way to his inside, but I was only able to get my nose to his numbers. Maybe not even that far, but it was close. At that point I’m already committed and on the verge of wheel-hopping and locking the fronts up and I was just hoping he would leave enough room.

“I just needed to be a few feet further up, and I think I would have had position on him, but I wasn’t able to get there. Yeah, he had to turn for the corner and I was as low as I could get. Yeah, we made contact. It was definitely my fault. Not intentional, obviously. But I made a mistake.”

Truex finished third, followed by teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin. Hendrick’s Byron was sixth with Bell, Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Harvick and Chase Briscoe and Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick rounding out the top-10.

Hamlin said post-race he planned to race Larson hard over the final three regular-season events.

Yeah, I mean, I don’t know, whatever,” Larson said with a smile. “I want everybody to race me hard. He ran me really hard at Road America and put me in a couple bad spots to where I almost ended up in the grass or if I didn’t lift I was going to send him spinning. So then I knew points was on his mind and trying to hold me back is definitely on his mind.

“Yeah, it’s fun racing him and I look forward to the next few weeks and really even into the Playoffs. There’s still a lot of racing left, and yeah, it’s going to be fun. I’m glad there’s a fun little regular season point battle. I feel like in years past it’s kind of been a blowout come the last race of the points. But yeah, to be tied with three races left is pretty cool.”

At the other end of the standings, Reddick gave himself a bit of a cushion in the 16th/final transfer position. Reddick improved his advantage over his RCR teammate, 17th-place Austin Dillon, from six points entering the race to 15 heading to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course next weekend.

The Verizon 200 at The Brickyard is set for 1 p.m., EDT (NBC, IMS Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). It will mark the first time the Cup Series will compete on IMS’ 2.439-mile road-course since it began racing at The Brickyard in August 1994.

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based sports journalist specializing in motorsports since 1997. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was the inaugural recipient of the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame Media Award (2010). His list of freelance clients has included Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 9 2021
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