CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyle Larson rallied from early electrical issues Sunday to win for the seventh time this season and storm into the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs.
Larson’s victory on The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway ended a topsy-turvy day for Hendrick Motorsports. Larson and reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott moved into the round of eight, but Alex Bowman and William Byron were eliminated and Elliott was nearly sabotaged by a vengeful Kevin Harvick.
Harvick seemingly lay in wait to deliver his payback on Elliott for Elliott costing him a win at Bristol three weeks ago. The apparent retaliation came about halfway through the race when Harvick sent Elliott into the wall — a wreck that put Elliott on the verge of elimination.
But his No. 9 team got Elliott back into contention — even with his bumper flapping in the wind off the back of his Chevrolet — and he drove through the field and into position to ruin another day for Harvick.
Elliott and his crew had said over their public team radio that Elliott should wreck Harvick if he got close to him again on Sunday, and as they hurtled into the first turn with 10 laps remaining, perhaps Harvick began to worry.
He botched the entry, almost as if he was looking in his rearview mirror, and drove directly into the wall in a hard hit that crumpled the entire front end of his Ford. The crowd roared its approval as Elliott cruised through the crash scene and Harvick’s title run came to its earliest end since the elimination format began in 2014.
Harvick had advanced to the third round the past seven years and all the way to the title race five times. He didn’t exactly say he wrecked Elliott as payback for Bristol but didn’t deny it, either.
“You remember Bristol,” Harvick said the first time he was asked if it was deliberate. The second time he was asked he responded “sometimes real life teaches you good lessons.”
On the day he made his 750th career start, he finished 33rd and was eliminated along with Christopher Bell, Byron and Bowman.
When asked if the two are now even, Harvick simply walked away.
Elliott subtly masked his pleasure.
“As far as Kevin goes, I just want to wish them a merry offseason and a happy Christmas,” Elliott said.
Is it over as far as Elliott is concerned?
“For us, we’re just eyes forward and happy to be moving on,” Elliott said. “That’s the big picture. We’ll keep fighting.”
Larson, meanwhile, plunged to 36th when he began to lose power in his Chevrolet and had to make multiple pit stops to address the electrical issues. A lengthy change of his alternator belt saved his race and staved off his own startling flirtation with an early playoff exit.
Instead, Larson became the first driver in NASCAR history to win three road course races in a season. He passed Denny Hamlin for the lead with eight laps remaining and is the first driver since Kasey Kahne in 2006 to win both the Coca-Cola 600 in May and Charlotte’s fall race in the same season.
“I noticed my battery was going low, I was getting stressed out, like, ‘Man, I’m not going to get knocked out of the playoffs like this!’ It wasn’t looking too good,” Larson said. “You think you’re good, then all of a sudden you’re running like 40th. You’re like, ‘Well, I’m down below the cutline.’
“I knew I was going to have some sketchy moments. I just had to pick my way through traffic and stay calm.”
His victory ended Elliott’s streak of two consecutive wins on the hybrid road course/oval that Charlotte officials designed in 2018 to add an interesting new circuit to the playoffs. The venue didn’t disappoint on Sunday as drivers jockeyed over 109 laps trying to avoid playoff elimination.
Tyler Reddick and Chris Buescher, two drivers not in the playoffs, finished second and third. Kyle Busch and Hamlin were fourth and fifth and Matt DiBenedetto finished sixth.
The next six positions went to playoff drivers — Joey Logano in seventh, followed by Bell, Ryan Blaney, Bowman, Byron and Elliott.
Ty Dillon will return to full-time competition next season as the driver for GMS Racing in its inaugural Cup season.
Dillon has run four Cup races this year with Gaunt Brothers Racing and 11 Xfinity Series races with three different teams. He lost his ride at the end of 2020 and has been trying to claw his way back into a seat, and GMS Racing said Dillon was the only driver the team seriously looked at for the job.
Dillon will drive the No. 94 Chevrolet for the team in an alliance with Richard Childress Racing and ECR Engines. The car number dates to the 1990s, when current GMS Racing president Mike Beam partnered with Bill Elliott to form Bill Elliott Racing to field the No. 94.
The original Bill Elliott Racing shop is still a part of the GMS Racing facility.
RICK WARE RACING
Rick Ware Racing will be a full Ford team in 2022 with an alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing and Roush Yates Engines.
RWR has fielded four cars per race this year and owns three charters and leases a fourth. The team owner is under pressure to unload some of the charters to focus on fielding competitive cars.
Ware said Sunday he will have two cars next year, perhaps a third.
“I’m not prepared to run four cars at this time,” Ware said.
Daniel Craig capped his final opening weekend as James Bond with a stop at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he waved the green flag on NASCAR’s playoff race.
Craig is a car enthusiast — he said he’s currently driving an “Audi RS6 which is quite pokey” — and has previously tested for Aston Martin on a closed course. Sunday was his first NASCAR race.
The opening race of the third round of the playoffs is next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Kyle Busch is the defending race winner.