CONCORD, NC — Kyle Larson went from 26th to first after battling back from an alternator belt breaking early on in Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 to win the Round of 12 cut race at for the NASCAR Cup Series. It was Larson’s seventh win of the season, three of which coming on road courses as the Hendrick Motorsports driver becomes the first driver in the history of the sport to win three times on road courses in a single season.
But, this win wasn’t as easy as the ones in Sonoma or Watkins Glen. This one saw his No. 5 Chevrolet team change the battery on Lap 33. They also determined then that the belt on the alternator was the reason for his voltage problems but they found they didn’t have enough time then to swap them out.
So, they elected to wait until after the stage ended to do so. They put them in 26th at the time of going green for the final stage. He was in danger of falling out of the top eight in points to advance to the Round of 8.
Instead, he and his team never flinched. Larson, drove through the field and found himself back in the top five before a wild swing of events to close out Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Yeah, it’s so satisfying because I really did not think that we were going to have a shot to win today,” Larson admitted. “Had a lot of different emotions throughout the middle portions of that race, thinking that this is so depressing and sad and crazy that I’m going to lose my shot at a championship because of an alternator issue, to, okay, now we got it fixed, let’s try to get away with a top 15 finish, keeping all the fenders on it.
I was passing some cars. We had a really good green flag cycle. I’m trying to look at the big screen. I see Denny coming up on my mirror. I’m like judging off of that, Okay, I think I’m towards the front here now. Man, I’d love to see a caution come out. Then it all worked out.
“Not that many people stayed out with him. I knew he was in trouble. I had just a lot of stuff work out for us. William having to go through the backstretch chicane that allowed us to get to second. From then on I was like, We really have a good shot to win now.
“Just a wild range of emotions all race long. Just crazy that I’m sitting here talking to all of you.”
His teammate William Byron had looked like he was in position to steal a win as well as spot into the third round of the playoffs by virtue of that. He was on the right strategy and in control of the race. That’s until another Hendrick driver in Chase Elliott brought out the seventh of eight cautions on the day.
Elliott’s bumper was just hanging by a thread for several laps but NASCAR never black flagged him. As a result, the bumper would easily fall off which would spark a caution and allow Elliott to get back in the game for the pursuit of one of those eight spots to the next round.
Prior to that, Kevin Harvick got his Bristol payback as he purposely spun Elliott in Turn 8 on Lap 54. That caused that damage to Elliott’s car which is why he was in that position that he was in, in the first place.
So, with a caution out and tires meaning a lot here, he and most of the field elected to come down pit road for the final time. Denny Hamlin, Matt DiBenedetto and Anthony Alfredo didn’t pit. Kurt Busch and Tyler Reddick beat Byron off pit road as he was followed off by Larson.
That was the restart order coming to the green.
Elliott was back good again but it was Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick now battling for that final spot. Byron, had to still win. Keselowski spun on the backstretch chicane. Reddick, Byron and Larson quickly got by DiBenedetto, Alfredo and Busch.
Then, Bryon got by Reddick and it was now Hamlin, Byron, Reddick, Larson and Busch as the top five. Reddick, got into Byron a lap later and he missed the chicane as a result. That contract between them allowed Larson to take second.
“I just flat out made a mistake and ran in the back of the 24 (William Byron),” Reddick said. “I am trying to stay as close as I can, and we are all trying to brake to the limit of the car and I got to the bumper trying to put myself back in position again to make a pass to the inside or outside. I got into the back of him ever so slightly and that is all it took to unhook the rear tires. Not on purpose. It’s just that small amount of contact that changed the trajectory that much. That was shocking to me and sure disappointing.”
The thing is, with all this battling, it allowed Hamlin to check out a bit on Larson. Then, Busch missed the front stretch chicane after contact and completely altered the top five.
Not long after, Elliott was now closing in on Harvick and it appears Harvick was likely locked into his rear view mirror expecting payback and missed Turn 1. He slammed into the wall on Lap 98 and brought out that eighth and final yellow.
Harvick’s day was now done and his championship hopes dashed. Keselowski was back in and hoping Byron, Christopher Bell or Alex Bowman wouldn’t win.
On the ensuing restart, Larson got by Hamlin and checked out. The seven lap fresher tires helped aid him in a clean sweep of the two Charlotte races this year as he also dominated the Coca-Cola 600 back in May too.
Hamlin’s tires were shot at that point. Reddick shoved his way into second with Byron now in third.
“Just kind of was in between trying to decide if we should pit or not and who knows, I’m not sure we had enough speed to beat the 5 (Kyle Larson) out right,” Hamlin said of the decision not to pit there at the Lap 87 caution break. “We held those guys off as long as we could on the older tires. Just fell back to fifth.”
The thing is, Byron got off course with two laps left in pushing too hard and saw his title hopes go up in smoke too.
“It was great. We had a really good car in two of the three races in this Round and today we had an amazing car, probably capable of winning, but just didn’t have things go our way there,” Byron conceded. At that point when I got up to third, my tires were shot, and there were only two laps to go. I wasn’t going to win, and made a mistake to not finish third, but at that point I was just mad.”
That allowed Larson to easily cruise to his 13th career Cup Series victory with Reddick coming in second for his 15th top 10 of the season in his No. 8 Chevrolet. It was also his third top 10 in four ROVAL starts if you count his two appearances in the Xfinity Series including two runner-ups in his last three tries.
I knew I had a car that was definitely capable of winning,” said Larson. “I was trying to be patient with it. I knew I had much better tires than Denny. But to a point I was too patient with him the first restart. I was able to somehow get past Reddick. I think him and Denny got battling. I was able to get him before we got back onto the oval, turn one over there. A caution came out shortly later.
“I told myself I still need to be smart and patient, but not to waste any time if I get an opportunity. I had a good restart, was able to get single file off of turn one. The restart before Denny had kind of entered low and washed really high in the center of three and four over here. I knew that was going to be a good opportunity for me if I could get my angles right to get pointed and squirt in front of him and at least get in position on him off of four.
“Yeah, that restart went really well for me. Kind of had to manage the gap and not make any mistakes.”
Rick Hendrick sang Larson’s praises post race too.
“I think Kyle right now this year, he has tremendous confidence in the team,” Hendrick said of his driver. “They have tremendous confidence in him. He believes, I mean, he’s a guy he told me all week, I can’t wait for the Roval, we’re going to win the Roval.
“He’s so good everywhere. When you get to a place like Talladega, Daytona, when you take it out of his hands, then he can’t show the real talent that he has.
“But I think the races coming up in Kansas and Texas, you know, Martinsville, I hope we can get a win and enough points before we get there, end up in Phoenix, I think, hot and slick. It will be a good track for him.
“We know the competition’s going to be tough. When you get there, you’re going to have your hands full with any one of the other three cars.
“I was around Kyle a lot when he was driving with Ganassi. We were kind of friends. I talked to him. But just the determination he has right now. He’s so good. I did not realize how good he was with feedback to the car.
“Now the further into the year he and Cliff go, the better they’ve gotten together. They can anticipate things, so… Pretty excited.”
Chris Buescher was a quiet third in his No. 17 Ford for his first top five of the season but second straight top 10 as he was sixth last week in Talladega.
Kyle Busch scored his first career ROVAL top five with a fourth place run in his No. 18 Toyota while Hamlin rounded out the top five in his No. 11 Toyota.
Here are my main takeaways.
The ROVAL Is In A Perfect Spot On The Playoffs
NASCAR has changed up the playoff schedule over the last few years but one things certain, the cutoff races are in perfect positions. Bristol as the last race of the opening round and Martinsville as the final race of the Round of 8 spark enough drama for short tracks to give us what we want to see in elimination races. Now, the ROVAL showed that they deserve to remain as the Round of 12 cut race too.
This race is always unpredictable and for another year, it provided the excitement that it takes to show us that this race should remain for the future.
Most drivers aren’t happy about that as not too many in the garage like the ROVAL. They feel like we’re racing on a parking lot. They’re kind of right. But, by having a road course inside of a 1.5-mile oval makes this track so challenging. There’s no room for error. It’s like a high speed street race with walls all around you and no margin to get off course because a wall is waiting for you if you do.
In turn, that makes setting the car up rather difficult because you have the banking and the oval to deal with high speeds but the infield section is slower. Which do you prefer to be good at and where can you get by on?
I mean, if this race was on just the oval, I don’t think we get the unpredictability of what we saw for 109 laps of action on Sunday. It may have been too straightforward without the drama. We had the same eight advance on as they entered Sunday’s race but it took a lot of wild and tense moments for each to get there too.
Pit Strategy Helped
The other factor on this is that pit strategy kept us on our toes for much of this race. You had constant cycles of pit stops with varying plans on what to do. Some elected to pit on Lap 8 and more on Lap 9 before the Lap 10 competition caution. Then, you had more pit on Lap 11 during the yellow flag for that comp caution. On Lap 19, Ryan Newman crashed in Turn 14. That’s six laps shy of the stage break. You’d see a whole cast of cars come back down pit road under caution on Lap 20.
In the end, four cars never pit from the drop of the green flag until the first stage break and they finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th.
On Lap 26, all but AJ Allmendinger pit among those who hadn’t yet as well as a few others. They’d cycle behind the ones that pit on Lap 20.
We’d see a caution on Lap 33 which brought more strategy plays out as several cars elected to pit then too. Then, with the stage break coming on Lap 50, we saw a lot of cars pit again prior to that on Lap 45 and 46. The rest came down pit road after the stage break on Lap 51.
That’s why this race was wild in terms of pit strategy and why it should stay here because you never knew what you were going to get throughout.
CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 10: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 10, 2021 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Harvick vs. Elliott Drama Handled Badly
Kevin Harvick took matters in his own hands and to me, crossed the line Sunday in Charlotte. He was still holding a grudge from what happened in Bristol but what transpired at the end of the Round of 16 race was Elliott taking a line away from Harvick. This one today was Harvick crashing Elliott on purpose.
That to me isn’t an equal punishment for the Bristol incident. Elliott didn’t crash Harvick then. Harvick would have passed him in Bristol but he couldn’t. He still finished second that night. Elliott, didn’t deserve to get punted as his playoff hopes were nearly dashed as a result.
That wasn’t handled right in my opinion but it worked itself out when Harvick crashed on his own merit in Turn 1 on Lap 98. Elliott was coming and one would think that maybe Harvick was mirror driving expecting a payback.
But, before that though, Elliott’s rear bumper of his No. 9 Chevrolet was just hanging off his car for lap after after. We all knew that would eventually fall off. The thing is, NASCAR had to see that and normally would black flag that car to get that fixed before it does. They let this ride out in likely hopes of it falling off and bringing out a caution to spice things back up again.
If a yellow doesn’t come, Elliott is likely toast. That would be the Most Popular Driver taken out of championship contention in the Round of 12. That would be the second time in as many years that has happened.
It all worked itself out, but say Elliott is black flagged and that caution never falls. Does another one come out later? I mean, one could say Byron would have won and Harvick escaping by on points.
That’s why I feel like this wasn’t handled correctly from all sides. Still, it gives us a new rivalry though as while I expect this to maybe be done for the remainder of the playoffs, it could always spark back up again next year.
“As far as Kevin goes, I just want to wish them a merry offseason and a Happy Christmas,” Elliott said. “Opinions certainly aren’t changing.”
CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 10: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 10, 2021 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Larson Winning Overshadows A Rough Round For HMS Cars
Hendrick Motorsports is fortunate right now to have two drivers still fighting for this year’s championship. See, there was a path to have three of them taken out on Sunday and that stems from what I feel was sloppy Round of 12 for the entire camp.
It all started back in Las Vegas to where all four cars made the wrong pit call to not pit during an early caution for the second stage. It bit them badly. While Elliott would rebound to finish second, Larson was 10th, Byron was 18th and Bowman in 22nd. A week later, Larson, Bowman and Byron all crashed in Talladega. Larson would finish 37th, Bowman 38th and Byron 36th. Elliott was the top finisher that day in 18th.
That’s why there were all in the positions that they were in on Sunday in Charlotte. Bowman and Larson had battery and alternator issues early. Elliott had crash damage via an incident with Kevin Harvick. Byron, got off course in the end while pushing hard for the win.
While Larson gave them the win this weekend, it wasn’t a pretty round of them as he and Elliott march on and Byron and Bowman get eliminated.
At one point of the season we wondered how many of the four drivers would HMS put in the Championship 4. Could they sweep it? 75%?
They’re down to 2 cars left.
CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 10: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 10, 2021 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Busch Finding Momentum, Hamlin Keeps It As They’re Surging Into The Round of 8
Kyle Busch had a rough opening round of the playoffs. A crash in Darlington left him with a 35th place result. A speeding penalty in Richmond took him from a top five to a ninth place run. A tire problem at the end of Bristol dropped him to 21st. He narrowly escaped by to the second round.
In the Round of 12, he was only 27th in Talladega. But, a third place finish in his home race of Las Vegas and being fourth on Sunday in Charlotte advances him on to the Round of 8 and now he looks like the championship sleeper again.
Busch, has had a fast race car. He very well could have four top fives in six races right now. If the mistakes are eliminated, they’re good.
He won the second stage on Sunday and earned his first top five in four tries at Charlotte on the ROVAL. In fact, his previous three finishes were 32nd, 37th and 30th respectively. But, he did what he had to do this weekend now goes to Kansas in the second race of the round, a spot to where he won at in May, but to Texas first as place where he won at last year. He has seven top fives in his last eight Fall Texas starts. Finally, it’s to Martinsville to where he’s always a threat at.
“We’ve run fair before here. Put the 9 (Chase Elliott) back in there and we’re fifth. Overall good day for the M&M’s Camry,” he said. “We came here with a plan and we tried to execute it as best we could. We’re just okay, I wouldn’t call us stellar. We did lead that stage and get a point there so that was good. It was hard to pass and really hard to make up ground. Once everybody got spread out, everyone runs really equal. Not a lot of gain throughout the run it seemed.”
For Hamlin, he looks like the championship favorite still. Yes, Larson won on Sunday, but Hamlin has a top 10 in every playoff race so far including two wins, a runner-up and a fifth place run on Sunday. He has seven top 10’s in his last eight starts overall.
“I feel like we had a good day, just made a few mistakes with missing the chicane and speeding on pit road, but came back from that,” said Hamlin. “Just kind of was in between trying to decide if we should pit or not and who knows, I’m not sure we had enough speed to beat the 5 (Kyle Larson) out right. We held those guys off as long as we could on the older tires. Just fell back to fifth.”
They have all the momentum right now.
Hendrick Motorsports has now won nine of the last 11 road course races.
“I think we’re awful good on road courses. Our guys are,” Rick Hendrick said. “Next year with the new car, who knows.”
On why Larson has been so improved on them, he said, “I felt like for me to be able to qualify as good as I had in years past when we had qualifying on road courses, I felt like I was a good road course racer until I would get to the races and I wouldn’t be very good just on the long run stuff.
“Now, with Hendrick, I think just the setups kind of go along with me and my style. We’re able to have good long run speed.
“I still feel like I’m so far away from being where I could be as far as road course racer. I still think there’s lots of, tons of room for improvement. I think there’s so many more people out there that are better than me under braking, just doing little things better than me and we’re able to get wins like we are.
“I feel like if I can put some more work in, I should hopefully get a lot better.”