Chip Ganassi Racing had a pretty good day at Atlanta on Sunday. Hendrick Motorsports did not.
Kyle Larson led the most laps of anyone (142) before he got stuck outside the top 10 because of a pit road speeding penalty. His teammate Kurt Busch finished third, the best finish for a Chevy driver. Larson ended up 12th.
No Hendrick Motorsports driver finished inside the top 10. Alex Bowman was the team’s highest-finishing driver in 15th. While Larson told NBC Sports on Tuesday that Atlanta isn’t the best place to judge a team’s intermediate track quality, he did say he believed that Hendrick tries to manipulate NASCAR’s inspection process to a certain extent.
“I feel like Hendrick plays games in a way with NASCAR. I feel like they always start the year off kind of bad to show NASCAR that they’re being nice and cooperating and following the rules and stuff and then it gets a couple months in and they start cheating and finding some speed,” Larson said. “So I don’t know, but it was satisfying and it’s been satisfying the last few years to be considered the top Chevy team. I think that’s something that this race shop prides itself on. But we don’t want to just be the best Chevy team. We want to be the best team out there.”
Later Tuesday night, Larson apologized for his comments. Ganassi gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports.
Cheating is a loaded term in NASCAR, especially with how tight the sanctioning body’s rule book is. Teams are always looking for ways to push the limits to find extra speed in their cars. And if a team isn’t pushing the limits, it’s probably getting lapped by the cars that are.
Because of that, NASCAR is always playing catchup. The sanctioning body is always tweaking its inspection processes to make sure the innovative ways that teams try to gain an advantage on one another are legal. Is a team finding and exploiting a loophole in the rulebook cheating? Only if they get caught. And Larson’s comments were pretty clear in the hours before he apologized that he was referencing the rulebook pushing that every team needs to do to be fast.
If Hendrick Motorsports was playing games with NASCAR’s inspection process in 2018, it played around for a lot longer than it needed to. The behemoth struggled in 2018 as Chase Elliott was the team’s only driver to win. And he didn’t get the first of his three victories until August.
Larson went winless in 2018 too. But he finished second on six different occasions.
Hendrick Motorsports has also been fast to start the season recently. The team has been the one to beat in Daytona qualifying for each of the past five seasons. Jimmie Johnson won at Atlanta in 2016 and the team placed two cars in the top five in the second race of the 2017 season. But last year, the first intermediate track race with Chevy’s Camaro body, Elliott was the best Hendrick driver. He finished 10th, a spot behind Larson.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.