Written by JENNA FRYER Associated Press
LAS VEGAS – There has been a NASCAR reset, on the track at least, with the third round of qualifying kicking off Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and a new Cup Champion set to be crowned after four races.
Out of the competition for back-to-back championships after being eliminated in Charlotte, Kyle Larson lost by two points to Stewart Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe — a team now accused of race tampering and fined by NASCAR $300,000 over the past week.
The back-and-forth of penalties, suspensions and charges between NASCAR and Stewart-Haas Racing, which offers a Ford car to Kevin Harvick, one of the most vocal critics of its new next-generation car, made co-owner Tony Stewart so angry that even the suspension. Stewart says he wouldn’t go to another NASCAR race if he didn’t have sponsorship commitments.
But Larson – the hottest driver in the country last year – was also knocked out of qualifying by his Hendrik Motorsports teammate, William Byron.
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NASCAR Prion deliberately mistook Denny Hamlin under caution and imposed the penalty two days later. But the appeals panel ruled that NASCAR could only fine Byron and not fundamentally alter the score after the race by deducting points, restoring 25 break points for Byron and pushing him into the playoffs.
Favorite candidate to succeed Larson? Perhaps Chase Elliott, who was headed for what could have been his sixth career win of the season in Charlotte until late on caution and overtime. NASCAR’s most popular driver has won the title four times in 2020, and Larson’s win last season earned him two consecutive Rick Hendrik Cup championships.
Christopher Bell might be the dark horse to pick from the betting window – the round opens in Las Vegas, after all. Ranked as an 8-1 favorite by FanDuel Sportsbook for the title, Bell was the best driver in the first round with an average of 4th place in the first three races.
Successive poor finishing touches to the second round opener put driver Joe Gibbs Racing on the verge of disqualification, but when late warnings in Charlotte overturned the race, Bale swooped in and earned the victory and an automatic berth in round three.
Bale said after his victory in Charlotte: “For the past two weeks I’ve been very deflated, just kind of crashing in the dumps. Now I can promise I’m more excited than ever for these next three races.”
The future of the next generation
There are only four spots in the November 6 final at Phoenix Raceway, which will end NASCAR’s most competitive season in decades. Counting a pair of wins by Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, the first season of The Next Generation Car produced 21 different winners.
Two drivers still suffer concussions. Alex Bowman, winner in Las Vegas this spring, said he will miss the next three races. Bowman and Kurt Busch both got hurt in what should have been a routine wall collision, but the rear of the Next-Generation is so rough that the drivers absorb an unusual amount of impact.
NASCAR believes it has a next-generation rear-end stiffness fix, with changes likely by the start of next season. This means that there are still four races left that must align with the current design.
It took a near mutiny from the driver in the wake of Bowman’s concussion last month to lead the series to take on the field. The 75-minute driver meeting in Charlotte received mixed reviews, with some drivers insisting that NASCAR couldn’t even finish its presentation because the session turned out to be “broadcasting grievances.” Joey Lugano said the meeting should have taken place after Bush’s crash in July and not three months later after another driver suffered a concussion.
Cory LaJoie, who stood with NASCAR in its development of the next generation, said NASCAR told drivers what it tested “takes about 50% of the G-load away in a rear-end collision.”
“You could always say we should have done it faster,” Lagoy said in his podcast. “But these things take time. It’s not like NASCAR is sitting on its hands, waiting for another man to get hurt. Nobody is in danger or harm to see their competitors get hurt more than NASCAR.
“When we were designing this car, safety was above every other checkpoint.”
Although Bowman left open the possibility of returning to the car at the end of the season in Phoenix, his original track, Bosch will miss his 14th race in a row.
There is speculation that the 44-year-old Bush will use his Las Vegas home track to announce his retirement. Busch has a press conference on Saturday morning, and Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, has promised an update on Busch this week.
23XI Racing has already signed Tyler Reddick for 2024, but Richard Childress Racing is of no use with Reddick now that Kyle Busch has signed for next season. Reddick’s availability and Kurt Busch’s prolonged symptoms may have forced an early decision on Busch, who is on contract until 2023 with an option for 2024.
“We want him to be part of our team and help us,” Hamlin said of Bosch. “He is an asset to our team. We want to keep him, Toyota wants to keep him, and I am sure he will be in a meaningful position long after his driving career is over. Whenever that is.”
Possibilities and endings
Hendrick Motorsports has appointed Blake Harris as Alex Bowman’s head coach for next season. Harris has spent this year with Michael McDowell at Front Row Motorsports, and will replace Greg Ives, who is moving away. … Denny Hamlin is the favorite to win Sunday, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, which lists Elliott as the pick to win the championship. …Elliott opened the third round as the top seed and 31 points above the cut-off line. … Chase Briscoe is the eighth seed on his debut this round. “I enjoy being the underdog and I handle it better when people doubt us,” he said.