Hendrick Motorsports’ clout this season on the intermediate-sized tracks rose again Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with a hold of the top four spots midway through the South Point 400. That in-progress show of strength wound up being a widely mixed assortment by the checkered flag.
Chase Elliott carried the organization’s banner in the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs’ Round of 12, securing a second-place finish behind race winner Denny Hamlin as his teammates scrambled for the running order’s remnants. Elliott made up ground in short spurts near the end, but was left .442 seconds back and relegated to his sixth runner-up result of the year.
“Super close,” Elliott said. “Really proud of our NAPA team. Feel like we’ve been performing at a really nice level the last three or four weeks, we just haven’t had great results to show for it. Proud of the effort tonight. Looking forward to the next two. Going to be wild. Looking forward to it. ”
The “next two” that Elliott referenced are the approaching races in the three-race stanza — an expected 500-mile maelstrom Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway and the Round of 12 finale at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s unpredictable Roval layout. The defending Cup Series champ and his teammates are all at varying points along the elimination line after Sunday’s 400-miler, which provided no easier path.
Kyle Larson, a winner in March at Vegas, started from the pole position and led 95 laps — second only to Hamlin’s 137. But a different pit-stop strategy through the second stage left him off the lead lap, needing the wave-around rule to put his No. 5 Chevrolet back into contention. He was only able to muster a 10th-place result, but holds a 57-point edge over the elimination line thanks to his Stage 1 win at Vegas and his stockpile of playoff points.
“Just being on older tires and having to battle through all of them was difficult,” said Larson, noting that he had to stay out after his wave-around in the break after Stage 2. “You forget how hard everybody races back there; it’s pretty wild. There were moments where I thought I was going to end up crashed or get frustrated and run myself into the wall. But we were able to mentally fight through it and come away with a top 10.”
The troubles were more pronounced for Hendrick stablemates William Byron and Alex Bowman, who are both below the elimination line heading to Talladega — Byron at minus-4, and Bowman 13 points back.
Byron was among a handful of drivers who started at the back of the pack after issues in pre-race inspection with his No. 24 Chevrolet. He roared up through the field into the top 10 after just 25 laps, but a sluggish Stage 2 pit stop after an issue changing the right-front tire forced the team to improvise. He lost a lap in the process, regained it as the free pass at the stage break, then tumbled back in the order with a flat tire in the final stage. He placed 18th.
“We were able to drive all the way back to the front from the back again, so that was twice today,” said Byron, who led seven laps. “And then we had the flat tire. We had an awesome car. The No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet was amazing. I think it was right there with the No. 11 (Hamlin). We’ll just have to keep bringing that speed.”
Bowman was befallen by his own tire issues, making an extra pit stop under green-flag conditions on Lap 213 and dropping two laps off the pace. He rallied from 29th to 22nd by the end, but that was next-to-last among the 12 remaining playoff drivers at Vegas; only Christopher Bell placed worse, in 24th.
“We weren’t great,” Bowman said. “The Stage 2 strategy just didn’t work out for us and it put us in a tough spot there to start Stage 3. The valve stem got knocked off on a pit stop and the rest is history. Not a good day on any aspects. We had a decent car, we just didn’t have the pit road strategy we needed.”
The four-car effort will try to regroup at the 2.66-mile Talladega circuit, where the specter of large, playoff-damaging wrecks looms. Byron said his strategy will be fairly straightforward.
“Just be aggressive. I was aggressive all day today and passed a ton of cars,” Byron said. “Just be as aggressive as I’ve been on the speedways in the past. We won a race on a superspeedway last year and I feel like we can do it again. The Roval is a good track for us too, so we’ll see what happens.”