Holly Cain – NASCAR Wire Service
Kyle Larson celebrated his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in two years Sunday at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, taking the checkered flag in the Drydene 400 by a convincing 1.578-seconds over Martin Truex Jr. and securing himself and his Chip Ganassi Racing team their first ever berth in the upcoming Playoff Round of 8.
Larson’s friend and polesitter Denny Hamlin finished fifth after leading a race best 218 laps. But perhaps the two golf buddies would agree, on this Sunday, Larson’s long game was just a bit better.
Larson, who started alongside Hamlin on the front row, took the race lead on a fast pit stop by his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet team during the Stage 2 break, and pulled out to a five, then six-second advantage on the field – first on Hamlin then on Truex, a contender all afternoon. Truex won Stage 2 and led 15 laps but a slight pit stop miscue put the 2017 Cup champion out of the pits sixth on that stage stop instead of with the lead.
“After the first stage I kind of changed my driving style up and I felt like I made the car better at the same time and it really benefitted our long runs,’’ said Larson, who led 154 laps en route to his sixth career – and first Playoff victory. “That’s as good as I’ve ever been around cutting the bottom here. Just a great combination here. Good to be fast in practice and then be good again in the race and get the win.
“This is unbelievable,’’ he continued, motioning toward the track’s front grandstands in gratitude.
“I’ve always wanted to win a Cup race here. I’ve been close a number of times, so to get a Golden Monster (trophy) is going to be pretty sweet.’’
Larson and Truex’s fellow playoff contenders Alex Bowman, Kevin Harvick and Hamlin rounded out the Top-5 on Sunday. Regular season champion Kyle Busch, who started 18th – lowest on the grid of the 12 Playoff drivers rallied from an early-race pit road penalty to finish sixth.
Heading to the second race of the Playoffs’ three-race Round 2, Larson’s victory puts him atop the standings with a 500-mile race at the historic Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway next week. Truex’s runner-up finish puts him atop the points – 15 points ahead of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin. Busch’s rally puts the regular season champ fourth in the points standings – tied with Hamlin.
“We were catching him at the end, got closed, just unfortunate there,’’ Truex said. “We win and lose as a team and the guys will clean it up for sure.”
He added, “Every week is about getting most points you can, so a positive day for us.’’
Positive would be an understatement for Larson, who celebrated in victory lane for the first time in 75 races hoisting Dover’s special Golden trophy – specially designed to commemorate the track’s 100th Cup Series race. Larson has been consistently good at Dover throughout his six-year Cup career, the 27-year old Californian earning a pair of runner-up finishes previously. He was third there in this Spring’s race – a race won by Truex.
Hamlin, who won the pole position by a mere .003-seconds over Larson, looked strong early but radioed to his team with 130 laps remaining that he was worried about his car’s engine. At the time, however, he was running fastest among the field and maintaining a nearly 2-second advantage over third place. With about 60 laps to go, Truex got around Hamlin.
Plenty of lapped traffic put Truex in position to perhaps make a move toward Larson. Twice the traffic cut Larson’s leads from more than 5-seconds to under 2-seconds.
Among the other Playoff-eligible drivers, Clint Bowyer rallied to a 10th place finish, one position ahead of 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who was the only driver to score Top-5 finishes in all three opening round races. William Byron was 13th.
It was a tough day for several other Playoff drivers. Ryan Blaney, who ran Top-10 much of the afternoon, pit on Lap 298 complaining of a brake issue. The Team Penske crew took his No. 12 Ford to the garage for repairs and he finished 35th.
It was nothing short of a monstrous beginning for two other Playoff competitors. Reigning Cup champion Joey Logano didn’t even take the green flag with the field. Instead his No. 22 Team Penske Ford was in the garage where the team was furiously working to repair an axle problem. He returned to the track 24 laps down and finished 34th.
Defending Dover race winner and last week’s Charlotte ROVAL winner Chase Elliott only lasted eight laps on Sunday – his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet suffering an early engine failure. He was officially scored last – 38th – and like Logano and Blaney, will need to have big points days at both Talladega and Kansas tracks. Elliott won at Talladega in May and is the defending Kansas Playoff winner.
Matt DiBenedetto finished seventh – best among the non-Playoff drivers. Jimmie Johnson, whose 11 Dover wins makes him the track’s winningest driver, scored points in both Stage 1 and Stage 2, took over the points lead among drivers who didn’t qualify for the Playoffs. He now leads Daniel Suarez by 10-points.
Rebounding in the next two races is
imperative for several Playoff contenders
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It was a tough race day start-to-finish at Dover International Speedway on Sunday for several Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders. In the case of reigning series champ Joey Logano – it was a tough day even before the start.
Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford suffered a mechanical issue during the pace laps and as the field took the green flag to start the race, his team instead hurriedly worked to repair the car in the garage. He did return to the race and ultimately finished a season worst, 34th – after scoring top-10 finishes in the previous three Playoff races.
“We definitely used our mulligan,” Logano said. “We used the Playoff points we accumulated, we just have to be perfect now. We have two really good race tracks coming up though. Talladega is arguably one of our best race tracks and I would say Kansas as well. We just have to be perfect from here.”
Certainly the bizarre and uncharacteristic start to his day was unsettling and puts Logano behind heading into the second race of the second round of Playoffs – this Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
But Logano will have some company – good company – in the must-fare well department.
As Logano’s team was preparing his car to re-join the race, defending Dover winner Chase Elliott had an engine issue after only eight laps, sending him to the garage, not to return. He was scored 38th, tying a season-worst finish. A third Playoff driver, Ryan Blaney went to the garage with a 103 of the 400 laps still remaining and ended up 35th.
All three drivers started the race as legitimate picks to advance to the Round of 8 and now Logano is ranked ninth, tied with eighth place William Byron, 17 points behind seventh place Alex Bowman. Elliott is ranked 11th of 12 Playoff drivers, seven points behind the cutoff. And Blaney is ranked 12th, 22 points behind Byron and Logano.
Martin Truex Jr., who finished runner-up to Kyle Larson in the race, holds a 15-point edge over his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin atop the standings.
The tough situations Logano, Elliott and Blaney endured place so much importance on the predictably unpredictable Talladega high banks this week. And that may be considered good news for Logano and Elliott, especially. Both have past wins at the superspeedway.
Logano has three Talladega victories – second among active drivers this weekend to his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski with five victories. He has six top-five finishes in the last eight races – including his three wins (2015, 2016, 2018). Logano was fifth in the Playoff race at Talladega last year and fourth at the series stop there in May earlier this season.
Elliott’s Talladega win in May was his first at the track. The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has three top-five finishes in seven starts; including two top three efforts in the last three races. He’s started races well there too. Five times earning a top five position on the grid. Ironically, his victory came after his “worst” qualifying effort of 11th.
Blaney, Logano’s Team Penske teammate and the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, hasn’t fared quite as well as Logano and Elliott at the big track. He has only one top five and two top 10s in 10 starts and was 15th there in the Spring. In fact, Blaney has more DNFs (three) than he has top 10s at Talladega.
Kansas Speedway has historically been more to Blaney’s liking. He has five top-10 finishes in nine starts there, including a seventh place in the 2018 Playoff race. He won the pole position in Spring, 2017 and led a substantial 83 of the 267 laps, finishing fourth. Finished a career-best third at Kansas in the 2017 Playoff race.
Similarly, Elliott has a strong record at Kansas and he is the defending winner of the October Playoff race there. He has three top-five finishes in seven starts at Kansas; all coming in his last four Kansas races.
Logano has a pair of Kansas wins (2014 and 2015 Fall races) and eight top 10s in 20 starts. He won the pole position for last year’s Playoff race, led a race best 100 laps and finished eighth.
“I assume we’ll have to win one of these next few weeks,” Elliott said Sunday in the garage shortly after retiring his car. “If you ever make it to [Championship Weekend] at Homestead (Fla.), you’re going to have to win down there. I guess it’s a good opportunity to practice here these next few weeks.”
Chase Elliott moving forward with strong focus on Playoffs
DOVER, Del. – Chase Elliott came into Dover International Speedway pegged as a favorite to contend for the race win.
Instead, an engine issue ended his day after just eight laps in the Monster Energy Cup Series Drydene 400 at the Monster Mile on Sunday, relegating the 2018 Most Popular Driver to a 38th-place finish.
“Yeah I just had an engine failure of some sort,” Elliott said. “Unfortunately, we don’t really know what it was just yet. It just quit running. It didn’t really seem like anything was off. We were just kind of making laps and then obviously had a failure. It’s an unfortunate way to start this round for sure.”
Elliott won at Dover last October to kick off the Round of 12 and had never finished worse than 12th at the 1-mile concrete oval in seven starts and has six top-five finishes.
The DNF on Sunday sets him 11th in points, seven points beneath the cutoff line entering next week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. Elliott claimed the checkered flag at Talladega in April after leading 45 laps.
With two races left in this round of the Playoffs, Elliott sized up the challenge ahead.
“I don’t know where we’ll stack up,” Elliott said. “I assume we’ll have to win one of these next few weeks. If you ever make it to Homestead, you’re going to have to win down there. I guess it’s a good opportunity to practice here these next few weeks.”
The 23-year-old was also victorious at Kansas Speedway in Oct. 2018, where he led 48 laps. Kansas marks the end of the Round of 12 on Oct. 20.
Hendrick Motorsports flexes its muscle at Monster Mile
While Chase Elliott exited the race before he could break a sweat, his teammates at Hendrick Motorsports proved there was speed in their engines.
Alex Bowman powered his way to a third-place finish at Dover following a second-place effort here in the Spring. Jimmie Johnson wheeled his No. 48 car to an eighth-place result and William Byron finished 13th.
Bowman was the only one from Hendrick’s stable who capitalized on that power, muscling his way by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin late for his sixth top-five finish of the season.
But Bowman still saw room for improvement after qualifying 12th for Sunday’s race.
“I would’ve liked to have been a little better,” Bowman said. “I think we hurt ourselves not qualifying very well. I mean it’s a testament to HMS. We had two miserable races here last year and we have a second and a third at Dover this year.
“Everybody wants that monster (trophy), but I think our cars have come a long way and we’re continuing to move in the right direction.”
Johnson was driving directly with Bowman for much of Sunday’s 400-lap contest but fell through the top 10 late in the race.
Still, the speed shown by the organization gave Johnson a dose of optimism for the 1.5-mile track of Kansas Speedway due in two weeks.
“I think Kansas we’re really excited for and feel that we can control our own destiny there,” Johnson said. “The high-downforce tracks, the Hendrick cars have been much more competitive. I know we’ve all been excited to get back to Kansas and build off of what we’ve had going on here in the last month or two.”
Byron was running sixth during green flag pit stops around lap 184. But a pit-road speeding penalty ruined his chances of competing for a top-five finish.
The second-year driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet had the No. 2 pit stall from pit exit and thought he could peel out through the pit boxes to the yellow line without speeding. He and his team were burned and finished 13th two laps down.
“I got a really good launch out the pit box – probably a little too good,” Byron said. “I was kind of worried about it because I beat the (No.) 48 off pit road pretty good and it nipped us for sure.”
Cole Custer claims Xfinity Series victory at Dover
DOVER, Del. – In his 100th NASCAR Xfinity Series start, Cole Custer conquered the Monster Mile.
Custer held off a hungry field of Playoff contenders on a restart with seven laps to go and pulled away from Justin Allgaier to win the Use Your Melon Drive Sober 200 at Dover International Speedway on Saturday afternoon.
Custer, who claimed the victory as Dover celebrates its 50th anniversary, is the fifth Xfinity Series driver to win in their 100th start.
“I’ve wanted to win here so bad for so long,” Custer said. “I’ve been close a number of times but just to win the gold Monster (trophy) is unbelievable.”
Michael Annett claimed the last available spot in the Round of 8 as the first round of the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs came to a close Saturday. Advancing along with Custer and Annett are Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Austin Cindric, Noah Gragson, Chase Briscoe and Justin Allgaier.
Eliminated from championship contention were John Hunter Nemechek, Justin Haley, Ryan Sieg and Brandon Jones.
Custer, Annett and Haley were the biggest benefactors of a caution with 23 laps to go that fell in the middle of green-flag pit stops that changed the complexion of the race.
Dillon Bassett spun at pit entrance on lap 177 which brought out the yellow flag, leaving only Custer, Annett, Haley, Justin Allgaier, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric and Zane Smith on the lead lap.
Custer maintained the lead on the lap 185 restart only to see another caution displayed when Ray Black Jr. crashed in Turn 2, where Matt Mills and Stephen Leicht were also collected.
Luckily for Custer, the final caution didn’t limit him. He cleared Allgaier and Haley on the restart and pulled away swiftly for his seventh win of 2019, tying Christopher Bell for the most in the series this season.
“(The car) felt really good in practice,” Custer said. “I thought we had a good car. I don’t think it was everything we expected in the race. We kind of tried something a little bit different in this race but just (an) amazing pit call.”
The Playoff drama began on the opening lap when both Reddick and Harrison Burton broke loose on the back straightaway. Reddick slapped the wall with the right side of his car and continued, but Burton wasn’t as lucky.
Burton spun toward the inside of the track and was clobbered by teammate Brandon Jones, lifting Burton’s No. 18 car off the ground. Both drivers were checked and released from the infield care center, but Jones’ Playoff hopes ended there.
“There’s nothing that you can do about it,” Jones said after exiting the care center.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s luck worsened when Bell lost fuel pressure on lap 15, shortly after brushing the wall off Turn 4. Bell finished 25th behind the wall 34 laps down.
The early cautions continued on lap 21 when Nemechek spun Mike Harmon exiting Turn 4 and onto the fronstretch.
That was the end of yellows for on-track incidents until Bassett spun on lap 177.
Annett, who finished sixth after starting from the rear of the field due to an engine change, advanced out of the first round of the Playoffs for the first time in his Xfinity career.
Nemechek finished in 10th place after an eventful race. A strong pit stop at the conclusion of Stage 2 allowed his No. 23 to exit pit road fourth. That effort went for naught after a loose lug nut forced Nemechek back to the pits.
“That’s why we’re standing here, I feel like,” Nemechek said. “It just put us behind the eight-ball. We were in good position all day and right here, we came out of the pits fourth, but we didn’t have enough lug nuts on the left rear.
“Had to come back down. You can’t have a loose wheel here at Dover. It’s just something that you don’t want to have under green. I think we got the margin down to minus-six or something like that after the first two stages and were executing like we needed to all day. We just haven’t been able to close this year.”
Rounding out the top five behind Custer were Allgaier, Cindric, Haley and Briscoe. Annett was sixth and his JR Motorsports teammate Noah Gragson was the last car on the lead lap in seventh. Nemechek, Smith and Sieg completed the top 10.
Zach Sturniolo – NASCAR Wire Service