NASCAR Through the Gears: Kyle Larson punts Chase Elliott to win, then gets the coldest treatment
It started with rain and ended with heat.
The worst kind, too. Heat between teammates — two recent NASCAR Cup champs, both popular among fans and fellow racers.
It wasn't overly obvious to casual onlookers, but obvious to those who fancy themselves body-language experts and those who can also read between the lines.
Kyle Larson won Watkins Glen, Chase Elliott didn’t, and now we go plate-racin’ to see who dive-bombs into that 16th and final playoff spot.
Good lord, who scripts these things?
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First Gear: Chase Elliott pays for choosing outside lane
Two times this year, Larson has grabbed hold of victory in the late stages of a race. Two times this year, Larson has grabbed with one hand while using his other to stiff-arm Elliott out of the picture.
And remember, they’re teammates under the big splashy tent at Hendrick Motorsports.
At Fontana in February, Elliott was attempting a late pass on the very top lane, near the wall. Larson, who was side-by-side for the lead with Joey Logano to his left, went about two lanes up the track to block Elliott and basically break his Chevy.
Chase was chapped, to say the least, and didn’t hold back on the team radio.
Sunday at the Glen, on a late restart with Chase leading and taking the outside lane, and Larson running second and just to Chase’s right, Larson figured he had one chance to win the race.
And he took it, driving deep into the Turn 1 right-hander, locking up his right-front wheel, and basically giving Chase the bum’s rush to the left and out of the racing line.
Kyle Larson won, Chase Elliott finished fourth. That’s racin’, right? Time to move along, right?
Well . . .
Second Gear: Kyle Larson says roughing up Chase Elliott was only chance to win
Larson basically dissected the restart like a coach reviewing a fourth-down conversion.
“I think it's risky taking the left lane here at Watkins Glen,” he said of his teammate’s lane choice. “It's definitely the preferred lane as the leader, but as each restart gets further on in the race, whether it be at the end of the stage or end of the race, you're putting yourself in a vulnerable position to get used up on exit.”
No kidding. But again, as they say, all’s fair in love, war and late restarts. Especially when there are playoff bonus points to be had.
“I did what I felt like I had to do,” Larson said. “. . . To get the win and get some bonus points that we kind of desperately need as we head on into the playoffs.”
Your Honor, the plaintiffs would like to call to the stand, Mr. Billy Clyde “Chase” Elliott. Mr. Elliott, your version of what happened, please?
“Just a huge congratulations to Kyle and everybody on the No. 5 team. Congratulations to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for getting another win.”
Oh, come on!
“Congratulations. He did a great job. Seriously, they deserve it. Looking forward to going to Daytona next week and trying to get one for our team.”
But you looked quite agitated when talking to Rich Hendrick after the race? Surely, you can share some of the frustration.
“Just congratulated him. Like I said, always good to see HMS win. The boss deserves all the wins, all the great things that go on with this company. Proud of that. Looking forward to next week.”
That’s the worst kind of anger right there, the type a guy won’t even acknowledge. If I’m Kyle Larson, I might not be sleeping with one eye open, but I’m watching those mirrors in the coming weeks.
Third Gear: NASCAR on to Daytona with one playoff spot available
The Larson-Elliott dust-up initially overshadowed the new-look playoff picture. Until Sunday, when we didn’t get a 16th different winner for 2022, plenty of scenarios were still in play.
Now, we’re whittled down to just a few, and let’s try to round ’em up in one easy-to-use guide as we head to Daytona for Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400.
This season’s 15 different winners are locked into the playoffs, which begin Sept. 4 at Darlington. That includes Kurt Busch, who hopes to be back after missing a sixth straight race this week.
The two non-winners with the most season-long points are Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., and Blaney holds a 25-point edge for the 16th spot. Mathematically, they’re the only two non-winners who can get there on points without a win.
But both of those drivers are punted away if a different non-winner takes Daytona. Among the past superspeedway winners in that group: Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski.
By the nature of superspeedway racing, it would be a chaotic race even without the playoff implications. All of the in-race deciphering of the updated playoff picture, especially during Saturday night’s late stages, is exactly what NASCAR had in mind when they moved Daytona’s summertime race to this slot on the schedule.
Fourth Gear: Kimi Raikkonen, others, learn stock-car racin' ain't easy
Let’s return to upstate New York for a moment to check on our international visitors and see how their Sunday went.
We’re not here to gloat, just here to remind race fans how difficult it is to jump from sleek, purpose-built racing rockets to the full-bodied world of stock-car racing.
There was some serious talent at Watkins Glen to give NASCAR a look-see from behind the wheel. Particularly former Formula One world champ Kimi Raikkonen, who spent much of the afternoon in the back half of the field before someone else’s wreck forced him off course and into a tire barrier.
He was shackled with a 37th-place finish but didn’t seem deterred.
“It was good fun,” he said. “I felt more confidence all of the time. We had some good laps. It’s a shame. The car felt like it had a lot of speed, but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
All five of the visiting internationals, from the worlds of open-wheel or sports-car racing, finished 30th or worse: Mike Rockenfeller (30th), Loris Hezemans (33rd), Daniil Kvyat (36th), Raikkonen (37th), and Kyle Tilley (39th).
One look at Jimmie Johnson’s IndyCar struggles tells us these things also work in the other direction.
— Reach Ken Willis at email@example.com
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: NASCAR: Kyle Larson "had to" dump Chase Elliott for Watkins Glen win