LAS VEGAS (AP) — Rick Hendrick spoke and his drivers heard the boss loud and clear.
Hendrick intervened on a competition matter for the first time since Kyle Larson joined the team when he squashed any potential beef between his stars following their run-in last week in California.
Larson, the reigning Cup champion, caused Chase Elliott, NASCAR's most popular driver, to wreck last week as the two raced for the win. Larson did not see his teammate on his outside and his spotter missed Elliott, too, which led Larson to inadvertently run Elliott into the wall.
Elliott was furious and launched an expletive-filled tirade, while Larson was immediately apologetic.
Hendrick moved fast to ensure the first drama of the season didn't play out inside his very own building. The owner joined the weekly Hendrick Motorsports competition meeting and made clear his expectations to Elliott, Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron.
“That’s the only meeting since I’ve been there that Rick’s been a part of in that sense,” said Larson, who was hired in late 2020. ”He’s been to competition meetings and stuff like that. And we’ve had multiple meetings about different things. But as far as the racing and stuff, that’s the first one I can remember him getting involved in.
"I think we all know his expectations and after the incident last week, it was good for him to get involved again and tell us what the expectations are.”
Larson didn't get to actually speak to Elliott individually until Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Larson is the defending race winner and looking to start another streak. He was the fourth driver in NASCAR history to win three or more consecutive races multiple times last season as he dethroned new teammate Elliott as champion.
Although they are teammates, Larson and Elliott do not know each other well. Hendrick Motorsports has operated mostly under pandemic restrictions since Larson joined the team and its presented few face-to-face interactions between the drivers.
Larson said of the Hendrick meeting “from my spot, it’s always going to be awkward" but found Elliott to be professional on Saturday.
“We got to go over what happened from each of our vantage points. It was good to have a conversation and good to hopefully move along from it," Larson said. "It went well, honestly better than I anticipated. He’s a great teammate and I’m going to do my part to be a great teammate each and every week.
"Hopefully we never have any incidents happen again like what happened last week.”
Larson is listed as the favorite — 7-2 by FanDuel — for the third consecutive week and starts second alongside pole-sitter Christopher Bell on Sunday.
BELL TO THE FRONT
Bell won the first pole of his career in his 75th Cup start, but one of his few true chances to master a qualifying session.
NASCAR set the field by points for much of the last two years because practice and qualifying had been scrapped in pandemic restrictions. The return this year of one short practice session and a shootout-style of qualifying helped Bell finally get to the front.
He turned a lap at 182.673 mph in his Toyota to put the Joe Gibbs entry on the pole. Larson was second, but the parity of the new Next Gen car showed behind the front row.
Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric qualified third in a Ford for Team Penske. Cindric is the first rookie in NASCAR history to lead the Cup points standings for more than one race.
Chase Briscoe continued his strong start to his second season by qualifying fourth in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. Briscoe opened the season with a third-place finish at Daytona and led 20 laps last week in California. He's currently fifth in the standings.
Richard Childress Racing also continued to show a strong turnaround: Tyler Reddick was seventh and Austin Dillon 10th. Reddick dominated last week at California until he was caught in a crash and Dillon finished second.
BUSCH TO A BACKUP
Las Vegas native Kyle Busch crashed his Toyota in practice and didn't qualify while Joe Gibbs Racing prepared a backup car for him. He'll start last in the 37-car field.
There's a shortage of completed cars in NASCAR's rollout of the Next Gen and the backup JGR had at Las Vegas was a “parts car” not meant for competition.
His crew was readying it for Sunday after a flat left rear tire caused Busch to spin hard into the wall.
Larson initially thought Busch had been spun by the wind, which reached 30 mph on Saturday and the Xfinity Series race was briefly stopped for snow flurries.
“I was behind Kyle when he crashed and that was crazy," Larson said. "It turned around backwards so fast. I don’t know if the wind had anything to do with that, something broke, he hit a seam or what. It was wild.”
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