What We Learned at The Glen Before the Playoffs

Larson vs. Elliott is good for NASCAR, but also for Hendrick Motorsports.

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The storm passed and then came the thunder and lightning.

That’s probably a little dramatic but Chase Elliott was simmering in his own way after how Kyle Larson made the winning move on Sunday at Watkins Glen International. At the crux of the tension seems to be a conviction that Elliott races Larson like a teammate but doesn’t receive that gesture in return.

Larson might have had internal reasons to press the issue.

On one hand, the victories have been a little easier to come by for Elliott this season with four wins and a 9.8 average finish to suggest that the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 team is always in the mix most weeks. For Larson, especially compared to his 10-win championship campaign last year, this summer has comparatively been a grind.

The cars are fast, but the No. 5 team just hasn’t been able to crack beyond the top-five glass ceiling with regularity.

Elliott had already beat Larson to win this race in what seemed to be the decisive restart before it got called back due to a Loris Hezemans spin into the gravel trap.

So being presented with a mulligan, Larson made the decision to not get beat the same way twice, and it meant driving into Turn 1 hard enough to lock-up the brakes and push Elliott off the racing groove. There was no misdirection, publicly, on what Larson chose to do.

"I got in there hot," Larson said. "Did what I had to do to win. Again, I'm not necessarily proud of it, especially with a teammate, but I feel like I had to execute that way to get the win."

Wins and playoff points are just too valuable to be left on the table. Just ask 2020 Kevin Harvick.

It was always going to be difficult to replicate what Larson accomplished in 2021, not only on the NASCAR front but also all the marquee wins in a Sprint Car and Late Model as well, and he has acknowledged … maybe not a pressure but just an awareness that the winning percentage has decreased.

The Next Gen car is very aerodynamically sensitive on road courses, more so than its predecessor, and Larson had one shot because the race would be over if Elliott got away after the first corner.

"I don't think I would have gotten close enough to him," Larson said. "We were pretty equally matched. Dirty air was still a thing today. In the esses, even when I would get a decent exit off of one, if I was within three or four car lengths of him or anybody into the esses all day. I was just really tight and kind of binding the car up with my steering wheel, not able to run as much throttle as normal.

"That doesn't allow me to stay close enough to him in the bus stop. He was really good in the bus stop, really good in the carousel. I don't think I would have ever gotten close enough to him to even try to put pressure on him and make a mistake or try and pass him."

Thus, the decision to effectively send it into Turn 1, and eventually hold off AJ Allmendinger for the win. It’s worth noting though that there have been far more egregious sends this season. Ross Chastain at Austin and Joey Logano at Darlington immediately come to mind.

It’s just that it’s the second time that Elliott felt wronged by Larson. It’s the difference between a four-win season or six and counting.

At the end of the day, this is generally a good problem for Hendrick Motorsports to have in two top contenders, who also happen to be the previous two Cup Series champions poised to race for another Bill France Cup this November.

It’s also not a new problem in terms of how Hendrick previously had to manage Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, or Gordon and Terry Labonte and any of the marquee groupings that Rick Hendrick has assembled over the years.

Their teammate, Alex Bowman, had a fitting line last year to describe the competitive dynamic in that shop across all four cars.

"Your teammates are kind of your benchmark sometimes and you always want to beat those guys," he said. "You see that in really any type of motorsports. It’s really the only sport where you’re going directly against your teammates sometimes. Always want to run the best we can and beat everybody, right?"

The Cup Series field is so close right now, so much parity, that virtually every win has been decided by decisions that have been debated ad nauseum. It’s stock car racing after all. That it’s happened twice now between teammates is an embarrassment of riches for the Chevrolet flagship.

And come November, there are really no such things as teammates anyway. There can be only one, to borrow a tagline from the 1980-90s media franchise, The Highlander.

This very well could re-manifest itself again come Phoenix in November.

And at the end of the day, it's good for the sport too that two titans of the discipline are set to battle it out for the championship. That's what it felt like in 2020 when Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin battled for wins each week. That's what it felt like when Gordon and Johnson battled in 2007.

Gordon, Earnhardt
Earnhardt, Martin
Earnhardt, Waltrip
Waltrip, Petty
Petty, Pearson

It's good for the sport, their shared organizational roots this time be damned.

IT COMES DOWN TO THIS

The math is really simple for everyone not yet locked into the playoffs with just one race remaining in the Cup Series regular season on Saturday night at Daytona:

Ryan Blaney needs to maintain his 25-point advantage over Martin Truex Jr. and hope there is no new winner that isn’t him. Martin Truex Jr. needs to make up 25 points over Blaney and hope there isn’t a new winner unless its him.

There are 20 points available between the two stages and up to 39 available for finishing second. It’s theoretically wide open, especially with how fluid the running order can be during the course of any superspeedway race, and the looming possibility that anyone could be eliminated in a large multi-car crash at any time.

It speaks to the volume of parity this season that the cutline comes down to the drivers currently ranked third and sixth in regular season, too.

For everyone else inside the top-30 of the championship standings, there is no math required, simply win and you’re in the Field of 16 next week at Darlington Raceway at the expense of whichever of Blaney or Truex ends up with more points.

3. Blaney +25
6. Truex -25

---
17. Erik Jones
18. Aric Almirola
19. Austin Dillon
20. Bubba Wallace
21. Chris Buescher
23. Justin Haley
24. Michael McDowell
25. Ricky Stenhouse
26. Cole Custer
27. Brad Keselowski
28. Harrison Burton
29. Ty Dillon
30. Todd Gillilland

It’s Daytona so you could make a case for any of these surprise winners.

But let’s say a driver already locked into the Field of 16 wins Daytona, and there is a tie in points between Blaney and Truex. Then it would come down to second place finishes, and since both drivers currently have none, it would go down to third place finishes, in which case Blaney has the edge due to the results at Nashville.

Of course, they could theoretically tie with Truex finishing second and earning the tiebreaker, but this is all very unlikely. But now you know.

There will always be those who clamor for having the summer race at Daytona take place on Independence Day weekend, but there is a lot to be said about the status quo giving every fanbase hope that they could win their way into the playoffs no matter what has happened over the preceding 25 races.

It’s unfortunate that Blaney and Truex could find their way on the outside looking in as both have resumes to suggest they could battle for the championship. At the same time, everyone knows the dynamic at the start of the season.

Win.

And the simple truth is that neither team has reached Victory Lane in a format that emphasizes it so much. So, there is no reason to knee jerk any format changes if they don’t make it. In fact, this level of parity surely won’t become the norm.

It’s the first year with a new car and some teams will start to figure it out better than others. Most years, finishing second to sixth in the standings would get a driver into the playoffs. But at the same time, second to sixth usually comes with a win too.

Regardless, it’s great drama.

No doubt, the locked-in Penske drivers, Joey Logano and Austin Cindric, will look to rally around Blaney on Saturday night. Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell will rally around Truex as well. Denny Hamlin could support Truex or he could commit to pushing his driver at 23XI Racing, Bubba Wallace, to Victory Lane.

What if it comes down to Truex versus Wallace with Hamlin behind them?

Kevin Harvick and Chase Briscoe will likely be tasked with supporting Custer and Almirola. Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota will each have their marching orders, and there will inevitably come a point in the race, where none of it will matter anyway.

Buckle up.

RACING IN THE RAIN

With the memory of what happened last spring at Circuit of the Americas still fresh in everyone’s mind, NASCAR handled racing in the rain as well as they possibly could have.

There is an appetite for NASCAR racing in wet conditions, especially now that Goodyear has developed a compound more than capable of doing it, but there comes a point for every motorsports discipline where there isn’t a tire capable of driving through inches of standing water.

The 2021 Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix
2019 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona
2018 IndyCar Grand Prix of Alabama

That point was realized in the Cup Series last year at Austin and it looked pretty similar to that on Sunday in the immediate aftermath of the end of the lighting hold that delayed the start of the race.

By time the Go Bowling at the Glen began, it was the ideal conditions for drivers to test themselves on wet conditions without the show devolving into a complete circus. Some have said ‘what’s the point of having a rain tire if you don’t race in the rain?’

Well, there is a difference between rain and a deluge and it’s worth mentioning that the race began an hour sooner than it would have otherwise without it.

There is a possibility the race doesn’t begin at all on Sunday without a wet condition tire to help dry the racing surface while also producing one of the most entertaining green flag runs since the fluid enhanced finish between Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski in 2011.

By this point, it’s well documented that NASCAR has some work to do on road courses and short track to diminish the aero push effects of the Next Gen car. It’s the reason behind a two day test this week at Martinsville.

In the first year of a new car, this is just growing pains to get the industry where it wants to be on these tracks, especially given how entertaining the platform has been on intermediate tracks.

But for 30 minutes at Watkins Glen, none of that mattered as the racing was a pure test of car control and race craft in conditions that can only take place in wet conditions.

NASCAR race control timed it out admirably perfect.

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