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Hendrick: ROVAL Was Brutal On The Nerves

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 11 2021

Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson takes the checkers at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL race on Sunday. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

CONCORD, N.C. – Rick Hendrick is no stranger to racing’s roller coaster, but when the playoff hopes for his four teams began unraveling in the Bank of America ROVAL 400 he almost left Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I was ready to go home. I mean, it was time to get the helicopter and get out of here,” Hendrick said Sunday after Kyle Larson’s seventh victory this season. “It was brutal. It was the most nerve-wracking race I think that I can ever remember being a part of watching just because the ROVAL, the pit strategies, where people were on tires. It was a hard race to keep up with.” 

Throughout Sunday’s 109-lap event that determined the playoffs’ round of eight, Hendrick’s drivers constantly bounced back-and-forth across the cutline. Larson and teammate Alex Bowman experienced alternator problems. Chase Elliott sustained severe damage to his Chevrolet after a bump from Kevin Harvick sent him spinning into a wall. William Byron led twice for 30 laps, making him the top lap leader, before hitting a wall two laps from the finish while running third. He eventually finished 11th while Bowman placed 10th

“I made a mistake to not finish third,” Byron said. “At the end I was just kinda full of rage. I didn’t really care about finishing third. That wasn’t going to do anything for me in the playoffs. It sucks now that we didn’t finish third, but … we were in position to win.”

Entering the final race in the playoffs second round, only Denny Hamlin had guaranteed his advancement with a Las Vegas victory. Twenty-two points separated eight drivers.  

Chase Elliott of HMS survived being punted by Kevin Harvick. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Larson and Elliott volleyed back-and-forth on the plus and minus side of the cutline throughout the race. The two entered the season’s final road race above the cutline. Larson was 13 points to the good and Elliott six.

Larson’s problems began during stage two. That’s when the alternator issues that plagued Bowman earlier in the event now haunted Larson. During the two-lap caution period that signaled the end of stage two, the crew changed the alternator belt and the battery.  

“Jesse Saunders, our car chief. Steven Legendre, who’s our engine tuner, they hit a home run on getting the car fixed,” said crew chief Cliff Daniels, who noted the crew practices damage repair pit stops. “Our guys had to change the tires at the same time.

“We’ve got a checklist every week we go through of parts and tools and equipment that we need to have on standby. All of that was ready and available.” 

Larson admitted that at that point he didn’t believe he had a shot at victory and was “kind of sad and depressed.” The problems dropped the series regular season champion below the cutline. 

Elliott led once for two laps, but fell below the cutline due to the Harvick encounter. Many saw the incident as retaliation for a confrontation between the two three weeks ago at Bristol. 

“Sometimes real life teaches you good lessons,” Harvick said when asked about the incident. 

  Elliott’s crew kept him on the lead lap while repairing his car’s rear, but his final green-flag stop briefly left him a lap down. He regained the lap when then leader Hamlin pitted.  

  It was the seventh of nine caution flags that provided Elliott with another chance to maneuver his way into the playoffs. When the rear panel flew off of his car NASCAR called a caution for debris. Harvick restarted the race in 19th, giving him a position in the playoffs, while Elliott was 31st and below the cutline. 

Elliott charged through the field and when the eighth yellow flag waved for a three-car incident in turn two, the Dawsonville, Ga., native had cracked the top 20. When that caution period ended, Elliott was 19th and Harvick 12th. Four laps after the restart Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell were bearing down on Harvick when the Stewart-Haas Racing driver slammed into the first-turn wall. 

“I just pushed it in there too hard,” Harvick said. “I felt like I needed to go to get a couple spots back. I got the left front locked up and couldn’t turn.”

Elliott pitted for fresh tires during the caution, leaving him 26th on the restart. In the final eight laps, Elliott charged to a 12th-place finish. 

Meanwhile, Larson had maneuvered his way into second and on the final restart snatched the lead from Hamlin. Larson then held off a hard-charging Tyler Reddick to claim a 0.782-second victory, sweeping the Charlotte Cup races this year and becoming the first driver to win three Cup road races in a season.

“I couldn’t believe I got the lead that early on the restart,” Larson said. “My brake leg was kind of getting twitchy just from nerves and stuff. I guess that was just an excited anxiety shake.”

  Larson and Elliott advanced in the playoffs despite their multiple problems, while Bowman and Byron joined Harvick and Bell as those who must wait until next year to contend for a championship. 

Despite only two of Hendrick’s four teams advancing in the playoffs, the team owner said the chemistry between his organization’s crew chiefs and drivers is the best it’s ever been. 

“Everybody touches each car, and the motors, they’re given out at random,” Hendrick said. “It’s up to the teams. It’s up to the driver. It is the best we’ve been as an organization in a long, long time.”

The playoffs resume Oct. 17 at Texas Motor Speedway. 

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 11 2021
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