FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — A substantial collision between the Cup Series' defending champion and its most popular driver would be pretty juicy stuff under any circumstances.
Add in the fact that they're teammates, and NASCAR has a downright tantalizing storyline to follow just two races into the new season.
Kyle Larson sent an infuriated Chase Elliott into the fence when they made contact Sunday with just under 20 laps to go at Auto Club Speedway. Elliott's bold move to take the lead was erased when Larson, who had been side drafting off Joey Logano to stay in front, came briskly up the track and pinched Elliott into the wall.
Larson went on to claim his first victory of the season, even surviving a chaotic restart with four laps left on an entertaining day for the circuit's new cars on its oldest asphalt.
The restart was even more spicy because it was caused by Elliott, whose spin with eight laps to go was deemed suspicious by plenty of NASCAR fans.
After claiming his second surfboard trophy, Larson realized everybody wanted to know about his contact with his furious fellow Hendrick Motorsports superstar.
Larson patiently repeated that the contact was a mistake, not a block — but that Elliott also deserved a measure of blame.
Larson called it “probably a small bump in the road” for the teammates, but he thinks the next few days should reveal if the bump is getting bigger.
“I think if (more) things happen in the future, then yes, it gets out of hand," Larson said. "But Hendrick Motorsports, I don’t think, will ever let it get to that point, and we have enough respect for each other that I don’t think it will get out of hand at all. ... He’s going to be upset, which he has a right to be, but I’ll explain my side, and he’ll believe me or he won’t.”
The Hendrick meeting rooms back in North Carolina should be tremendously entertaining on Monday and Tuesday as the two teams sort out the hard feelings and examine the motives in this drama from the race closest to Hollywood.
Larson repeatedly expressed regret, but speculated it probably won't make Elliott feel much better. Larson's spotter, Tyler Monn, tried to take the blame for the collision on Twitter, saying he was paying too much attention to Logano.
“They’re great teammates, always have been, and I know we’re all good teammates together,” said Cliff Daniels, Larson's crew chief. “Like he said, that’s nothing that (Larson) would ever do intentionally, and that’s a tough racing deal. I don’t blame Chase at all for what could have been the race-winning move, and he just told his side of the story.”
Still, Elliott’s radio communication left no doubt about his immediate feelings on the move that ruined his day: An exasperated Elliott profanely asked his team what Larson was doing with his big swerve up high.
Even more intriguingly, Elliott told his team shortly before his spin that he suspected his toe link would break for the second time in the race, and that he ”(didn’t) really give a (expletive) who is leading the race.”
Larson and Daniels immediately dismissed the notion Elliott would spin on purpose. The teams had brief communication in the paddock after the race, but more dialogue is coming.
“I think certainly nothing intentional there by Kyle,” Hendrick Motorsports general manager Jeff Andrews said. “I know we’ll go back and talk about it in our meetings tomorrow and Tuesday, and we’ll look at all the facts and we’ll look at what happened, and we’ll talk about it as a company.”
The dispute between Larson and Elliott took some attention away from what turned out to be a tremendously entertaining race for the Next Gen car on Fontana's five-wide asphalt. Fans were treated to 32 lead changes among nine drivers, including a handful from teams that couldn't hope to contend consistently last season.
The drama wasn't over even after Elliott's spin, either. Coming out of the late restart, Larson had to outfox Daniel Suarez — who briefly took the lead with two laps to go — and second-place finisher Austin Dillon to claim his second career win at Auto Club Speedway in a thriller.
“The race car is great,” Andrews said. “It’s a really, really nice piece of equipment. I commend NASCAR. They’ve done a great job on it. ... That’s one thing about this industry: When we get together and decide we’re going to do something and decide we’re going to work on something together, some really great things happen."
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