ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Denny Hamlin’s aggressive driving against Kyle Larson at Road America showed just how heated up the race for the regular-season Cup championship is.
Larson, who entered Sunday’s two-point race from Hamlin, was set to take the series lead after edging Hamlin by 10 points in the first two stages. This advantage was lost when Larson was spun late in the race by teammate Alex Bowman and finished 16th, while Hamlin placed fifth.
Hamlin holds a three-point lead heading into this weekend’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
âYou hate giving points, but there are still a lot of races left before the playoffs start,â Larson said of the six races left before the regular season ends.
âJust keep trying to do a good job in the stages and be nice to come back and win a few stages, win more races and accumulate our bonus points and then obviously it would be nice to beat Denny and get those five extra (playoff) points (to the regular season champion).
âReally shoot for that. You can tell he shoots for that. He was really aggressive today.
Hamlin, who has led the points since the second event of the year, admitted he had run Larson differently on Sunday due to the tight points race.
âStronger than I normally would, for sure,â Hamlin told NBC Sports. âI’m trying to push him away. He’s so (expletive) quick. I’m doing all I can to hold him back. I’m out driving like a dick. I don’t do anything that others don’t. Normally I don’t run that way. I have a ton of respect for him.
Hamlin said Larson was due to return to North Carolina with him after the race.
Friends have been part of an intriguing story in recent weeks.
Hamlin led Larson by 144 points after the Mother’s Day event at Darlington Raceway. This race started a streak of seven top two in eight races for Larson. Hamlin has only had two top-five finishes in that streak.
âI’m just trying to stay close to Daytona to be honest with you,â Hamlin told NBC Sports, referring to the regular season finale on August 28 at Daytona International Speedway. âThese guys have really, really fast cars right now. I mean extremely fast.
âWe’re just trying to weather the storm until we get there. â¦ Actually, these guys should probably be winning all the races right now.
What makes this duel critical for Hamlin is his lack of points in the playoffs. He has five; Larson has 32. The regular season champion gets 15 points in the playoffs. The second driver in the standings at the end of the regular season receives 10 playoff points.
âYou have to try to get as much as possible to try to get as much cushion to protect yourself if something goes wrong,â said Chad Knaus, vice president of competition for Hendrick Motorsports. âThese guys are going to keep fighting for this. I don’t see it ending anytime soon.
âI think we can all expect the Gibbs guys to run harder and harder. We know they weren’t going to stay on their heels for long. “
Sunday’s Cup race at Road America marked the third race in the past six weeks that the series has contested at a new venue: Circuit of the Americas (May 23), Nashville Superspeedway (June 20) and Road America.
Of course, the crowds are often larger during unseen events. But these events have also shown the value of changing the calendar from year to year.
“I think that clearly shows me how we’ve been stuck in a box for so long and how we are opening that box and showing immediate results,” said Brad Keselowski of the changes to the Cup schedule for this season. âI think it’s a good thing.
âSpecifically, I think it shows that the schedule cannot be static. It has to be dynamic in many ways. It doesn’t all have to be up for grabs every year. Some variability can be extremely healthy for our sport. “
Josh Bilicki, a Wisconsin native who has raced on Road America often, said Sunday’s crowd was unlike any he had seen on the 4-mile track.
âI was here early at 7:30 am-8am (Sunday) and there were more people here than I’ve ever seen so early in the morning,â he said.
Race winner Chase Elliott was also struck by the crowds around the 4 mile track.
âThis place was packed,â he said. âThis is a massive road trip. They were literally, I mean, people all over the course.
âThis is exciting, man. When they change the schedule, go to new places, you bring the energy and excitement that our series deserves to have. I think we saw it today.
Erik Jones said he hopes the sport will continue to seek new venues.
âI hope we learn from that and find that going to these new places and maybe just going to places once a year is beneficial,â he said. “Sometimes I think you can oversaturate a market pretty quickly.”
Although NASCAR has not announced the 2022 Cup schedule – it will likely be done later this summer – the track has promoted ticket sales for next year’s event. No date has been announced, however.
Martin Truex Jr.’s ninth place has only scored his second top-10 in the last eight races. The two top 10 came on road courses. There is only one such track in the playoffs.
Truex has gone from the championship favorite after winning earlier this year at Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington – all key playoff tracks – to not even the best car at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“There is no worry at all,” team manager James Small told NBC Sports after Sunday’s race. âAs a company, we have strayed a bit. Last week (in Pocono) we thought that on both days we had a car in the top six. It’s just the way things went with the strategy, we had a bad pit stop and things snowballed.
âIt’s kind of like (Sunday at Road America) you get in traffic and it’s so hard to overtake even though you have the advantage of the car. None of us are worried. We have a process by which we live. We will continue to follow this and it will pay off eventually, I think. “
A speeding penalty injured Truex on Sunday. He was in a leading position to start the last stage before the speeding penalty on the pit lane.
Truex had to start from behind at the start of the last stage since his violation occurred just before the end of the second stage. This meant he started the last 32nd stage.
âYou’ve recovered (32nd), it’s hard to recover,â said Small. âIt would have been a lot worse. The ninth is OK. It’s just difficult.
Still, it was a top 10.
“It’s better than the way it’s been the last few weeks,” he said. âIt just seems like everything is wrong right now. Still a long way to go before the (playoffs) here and we get a reset. “
The announcement by Trackhouse Racing last week of the takeover of Chip Ganassi Racing, effective at the end of the season, leaves questions about its relationship with Richard Childress Racing.
Trackhouse Racing is hosted at RCR in Welcome, North Carolina. Team owner Justin Marks has said Trackhouse Racing will move to the Chip Ganassi Racing store in Concord, NC for the 2022 season. Marks is looking to move the team to Nashville, Tennessee, as soon as possible. season 2023.
It remains to be seen what the relationship between the Chevrolet teams will look like next year.
âWe’re going to sit here in a week or so and talk about what we’re going to do and maybe have an extra motor program with that,â Childress told NBC Sports. âWe have to see what comes out of it. “
With many elements of the Next Gen car coming from suppliers, traditional team alliances – where one team builds chassis for another team – will likely need to focus more on engineering or other elements.
âWe have a great working relationship with RCR,â Marks said last week. “We first have to give them the respect to explore with them what a partnership looks like in the future, but these are all things we will be looking at shortly.”
Richard Childress Racing has alliances with Trackhouse Racing, Kaulig Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports. Kaulig Racing will field two full-time Cup registrations next season.
âI just don’t want to overload ourselves,â Childress said. âI’ve done it once before. Kaulig is our key player at the moment. We work with them and (Richard Petty Motorsports) and see where the Petty is going. We have other opportunities if this is the direction we want to go.