LAS VEGAS (AP) — There has been a NASCAR reset, on the track at least, with the third round of the playoffs beginning Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and a new Cup champion set to be crowned after four races.
Kyle Larson was knocked out of contention for consecutive championships after being eliminated at Charlotte, nosed out by two points by Chase Briscoe of Stewart-Haas Racing — a team now accused of race manipulation and fined $300,000 by NASCAR over the last week.
The back and forth of penalties, suspensions and accusations between NASCAR and Stewart-Haas Racing, which fields a Ford for Kevin Harvick, one of the most outspoken critics of its new Next Gen car, has team co-owner Tony Stewart too furious to even comment. Stewart even says he wouldn't go to another NASCAR race if he doesn't have sponsorship commitments.
But Larson — the hottest driver in the country last year — also was edged out of the playoffs by his own Hendrick Motorsports teammate, William Byron.
NASCAR had missed Bryon intentionally spin Denny Hamlin under caution and levied punishment two days later. But an appeals panel ruled NASCAR could only fine Byron and not essentially change the score post-race by deducting points, restoring 25 playoff points for Byron and pushing him into the playoffs.
The favorite to succeed Larson? Maybe Chase Elliott, who was headed to what would have been a career-high sixth win of the season at Charlotte until a late caution and overtime. NASCAR's four-time most popular driver won the title in 2020, and Larson's win last season made it two straight Cup championships for Rick Hendrick.
Christopher Bell just might be the dark horse to pick at the betting window — the round opens in Las Vegas, after all. Listed as an 8-1 favorite by FanDuel Sportsbook for the title, Bell was the best driver of the first round with an average finish of fourth in the first three races.
Back-to-back poor finishes to open the second round put the Joe Gibbs Racing driver on the verge of elimination, but when the late cautions at Charlotte flipped the race, Bell pounced and earned the victory and the automatic berth into the third round.
“This whole last two weeks, I had been extremely deflated, just kind of down in the dumps," Bell said after his Charlotte win. “Now I can promise you I’m as excited as ever heading into these next three races.”
NEXT GEN'S FUTURE
There are just four spots in the Nov. 6 finale at Phoenix Raceway, which will end NASCAR's most competitive season in decades. Counting a pair of exhibition victories by Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, the first season of the Next Gen car has produced 21 different winners.
Two drivers are still sidelined with concussions; Alex Bowman, winner at Las Vegas this spring, said this week he'll miss the next three races. Bowman and Kurt Busch were both hurt in what should have been routine hits into the wall, but the rear of the Next Gen is so stiff that drivers are absorbing an extraordinary amount of the impact.
NASCAR thinks it has a fix for the rigidness of rear of the Next Gen, with changes possible by the start of next season. That mean's there’s still four races to go with the current design.
It took a near driver mutiny following Bowman's concussion last month for series leadership to address the field. A 75-minute driver meeting at Charlotte received mixed reviews, with some drivers insisting NASCAR couldn't even finish its presentation because the session devolved into an “airing of grievances.” Joey Logano said the meeting should have happened after Busch's crash in July and not three months later after another driver's concussion.
Corey LaJoie, who has sided with NASCAR in its development of the Next Gen, said NASCAR told the drivers what it tested “takes about 50% of the G-load away on a rear impact.”
“You can always say we should have done it faster,” LaJoie said on his podcast “Stacking Pennies. “But this stuff takes time. It's not like NASCAR is just sitting on its hands, waiting for another guy to get hurt. Nobody is at more of a risk or detriments to seeing their competitors hurt than NASCAR is.
“When we were designing this car, safety was above and beyond every other checkpoint.”
Although Bowman left open the possibility to be back in the car for the season finale at Phoenix, his home track, Busch will miss his 14th consecutive race.
There is speculation the 44-year-old Busch will use his home track of Las Vegas to announce his retirement. Busch has a Saturday morning news conference scheduled, and Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, had promised an update on Busch this week.
23XI Racing already has Tyler Reddick signed for 2024, but Richard Childress Racing has no use for Reddick now that it has signed Kyle Busch for next season. Reddick's availability and Kurt Busch's prolonged symptoms may have forced an early decision for Busch, who is under contract through 2023 with an option for 2024.
“We want him to be a part of our team and helping us out,” Hamlin said of Busch. “He's an asset to our team. We want to keep him, Toyota wants to keep him, and I am sure he will have a meaningful position long after his driving career is over. Whenever that is.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Hendrick Motorsports named Blake Harris to crew chief for Alex Bowman next season. Harris spent this year with Michael McDowell at Front Row Motorsports, and will replace Greg Ives, who is stepping away. ... Denny Hamlin is the favorite to win Sunday, per FanDuel Sportsbook, which lists Elliott as the pick to win the championship. ... Elliott opens the third round as the top seed and 31 points above the cutline. ... Chase Briscoe is the eighth seed in his first career appearance in this round. “I enjoy being the underdog and handle it much better when people do doubt us,” he said.
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