Hendrick Motorsports placed all four of its cars in contention to win the Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday and that meant risk teammates mixing it up in the closing laps.
That’s exactly what happened on a restart with 22 laps to go when Chase Elliott took Kyle Larson and Joey Logano three-wide entering Turn 3 of the Southern California speedway but got nudged into the wall by his teammate.
The damage sent Elliott down pit road for repairs, but the No. 9 would return to the track several laps down, at which point he spun with eight laps remaining with Larson holding on to a healthy lead.
In the heat of the moment, Larson and his team felt the spin might have been an intentional act of retaliation. Elliott said the spin was a result of a parts failure induced by repeated contact with the wall. With that said, Elliott and his crew were legitimately frustrated that their chances to win were upended by a teammate's actions.
After the race, Elliott had conversations with crew chief Alan Gustafson, Hendrick Motorsports competition director Chad Knaus and general manager Jeff Andrews -- the latter conceding a need to address the incident in-house.
"I talked to Chase after the race, and I think we've got to understand what those guys had been through all day long and where they had come from," Andrews said. "Obviously, to be in contention late in the race is just a testament to the great job that Alan and the entire team did to get that car back."
Elliott scraped the wall in Turn 2 on Lap 33 and spun five laps later, losing two laps to repair the damage from that crash.
"I think certainly nothing intentional there by Kyle," Andrews said. "I know we'll go back and talk about it in our meetings tomorrow and Tuesday, and we'll look at all the facts and we'll look at what happened and we'll talk about it as a company. And at the end of the day we're going to -- as we always do -- we'll do the right things for the company and get ready to go to Las Vegas in a good spot for really everybody."
No. 5 spotter Tyler Monn took responsibility for the incident on Twitter after the race.
For his part, Larson said he and Monn were so focused on Logano beneath them, that Elliott to the outside just came as a surprise. Larson said he wasn’t getting through Turns 3 and 4 well, and both Logano and Elliott were taking advantage on corner entry.
"Joey did a good job on the bottom, and then we were side drafting each other, and I'm not even looking in my mirror at that point because I'm worried about Joey and I'm looking out of my A-post window," Larson said. "I had a run, so I went to peel off, and as soon as I peeled off, my spotter is yelling, ‘Outside! Outside! Outside!’ and I had no clue he was even coming."
Larson expressed remorse that it ended Elliott's comeback efforts.
"It was just an honest mistake on probably both of our faults," Larson said. "I should have had more awareness in my mirror. My spotter could have told me he was coming with a big run, and we would have avoided that mess. I would have probably not been side drafting on Joey as hard as I was. I would have been more so protecting on Chase than worrying about Joey.
"It happened, and I hate that it did. I know they're upset. But we'll talk, and hopefully we'll get on the same page. I would never run into my teammate or block him that aggressively and that late on purpose."
Andrews said he didn’t think Elliott intentionally spun out, either.
"I don't believe he was taking out any frustration," Andrews said. "He came on there pretty quickly after the contact with the wall, and it was a very similar issue that had happened to them early in the day with the bent toe link, and that puts a bunch of toe out in that right rear tire and rear assembly and that makes it very difficult to drive.
"They were trying to stay out and finish as well as they could and had the issue late in the race there, had to come in and put a toe link on it."
Andrews said the meeting will start internally with a conversation between Elliott and Larson, and will eventually include any data needed to understand what happened, and will also include Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick.
Larson said he expects Elliott to take a day or two to really get past it, only because he knows how competitive his teammate is.
"I'm going to tell him exactly how I told you guys (in the media) and he'll take it for what it is," Larson said. "Either way I'm sure he'll still be upset even if we're on the same page or not. It's just a conversation that we'll have, and we're both young, we both respect each other a lot, so we'll both be racing for wins for many years to come.
"I'm not too worried about it. I think if anything it's probably a small bump in the road. I think if things happen more so in the future, then yes, it gets out of hand. But Hendrick Motorsports I don't think will ever let it get to that point, and like I said, we have enough respect for each other that I don't think it will get out of hand at all."
Andrews agreed it wouldn’t get to that point and will stress the positive nature of how everyone performed on Sunday.
"Of course, we want to speak to them because we want to go to Las Vegas in a good spot," Andrews said. "And certainly, very proud of both of those teams. They both had great race cars. That's the great news, right?
"This other stuff that happens on the racetrack, we can get all that to a good spot between those two teams, and give Cliff credit for standing down there talking to him a while ago, and he said after what happened, their mission is going to be to do everything they can to help Chase and that 9 team as well as our other teams get a win and get on to the playoffs."