Hendrick Motorsports landed its reigning champion driver in Victory Lane after Sunday’s Wise Power 400 NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway, but it didn’t escape the 2-mile track Fontana, California, without incident.
With 20 laps to go and amidst a three-way battle for the lead with Joey Logano, eventual race winner Kyle Larson issued a block on teammate Chase Elliott, squeezing the 2020 champ into the wall.
“What the (expletive) is he doing, man? It wasn’t even close,” Elliott exclaimed over his in-car communications. ” … It’s probably going to break again before the end of the race. But I don’t really give a (expletive) who is leading the race.”
Elliott quickly faded through the pack as a result of the damage, and his suspicions were right — he spun just a few laps later, prompting the last of the race’s 12 caution flags. Cumulative damage between this brush with the wall and an earlier incident were too much to overcome, and Elliott landed 26th on the final results sheet, two laps down.
The Dawsonville, Georgia, native had been leading in Stage 1 when he briefly lost control of his Chevrolet and slammed the outside wall, later bringing out the race’s second caution with a spin on Lap 38. A furious, race-long effort by his No. 9 group propelled his run back through the field to the front only to have it end in such a fashion surely compounded the frustration.
Larson claimed over his in-car radio he did not see his teammate approaching on his outside. The Elk Grove, California, native drove on, then survived a final restart with four laps remaining for his first Cup Series victory of the season. His post-race winner’s press conference allowed him to further elaborate on what he was seeing at the time.
“So, I didn’t get through (Turns) 3 and 4 very well. Joey (Logano) did a good job on the bottom, and then we were side drafting each other, and I’m not even looking in my mirror at that point because all I’m worried about is Joey and I’m looking out of my A-post window. I had a run, so I went to peel off, and as soon as I peeled off, my spotter is yelling, ‘Outside! Outside! Outside!’ And I had no clue he was even coming,” said Larson, who returned to Victory Lane in quick order after last season’s 10 wins. “I hate that I ended his day after they worked so hard to get back to the lead lap and back in contention to win, but it was just an honest mistake on probably both of our faults. I should have had more awareness in my mirror. My spotter could have told me he was coming with a big run, and we would have avoided that mess. I would have probably not been side drafting on Joey as hard as I was. I would have been more so protecting on Chase than worrying about Joey.
“It happened, and I hate that it did. I know they’re upset. But we’ll talk, and hopefully we’ll get on the same page. I would never run into my teammate or block him that aggressively and that late on purpose.”
Larson’s spotter, Tyler Monn, was quick to chime in on Twitter after the race, taking responsibility for the mishap.
Today I made a mistake. I will take full responsibility for what happen on track today. I was worried more about the 22 and not the 9. It was a late call on me it had nothing to do with Kyle.
— Tyler Monn (@TylerMonn) February 28, 2022
This minor dust-up shouldn’t overshadow Larson’s win, a statement he’s going to still be just as formidable in the Next Gen era two races in. But Hendrick Motorsports has a little bit of sweeping to do in the coming days between its pair of star drivers and the sport’s two most recent champions. The last thing the team needs before the calendar even turns to March is bad blood among any of its drivers, let alone half of last year’s Championship 4.
No. 5 crew chief Cliff Daniels had a post-race chat with No.9 pit boss Alan Gustafson to “take his share of the responsibility,” mentioning he continues to view Elliott’s group as “great teammates, always have been,” and that’ll continue to be the base.
Conversations will still need to take place between the two drivers, however, to complete the fence-mending process.
“I think first that’ll need to start, from our perspective, between Kyle and Chase,” Hendrick general manager Jeff Andrews said. “Hopefully they can get to a good spot and kind of step back and look at the data and really watch what happened there. And then of course, as a group, Jeff Gordon, Chad (Knaus) and myself and Mr. (Rick) Hendrick, of course, we want to speak to them. We want to go to Las Vegas in a good spot.
“Certainly, very proud of both of those teams. They both had great race cars. That’s the great news, right? This other stuff that happens on the race track, we can get all that to a good spot between those two teams, and give Cliff credit for standing down there talking to (Gustafson) a while ago, and he said after what happened, their mission is going to be to do everything they can to help Chase and that 9 team as well as our other teams get a win and get on to the playoffs.”
Elliott did not appear to make any public comments after the race, understandably upset after a day in which he had a car capable of winning and walked away with 11 total points.
Larson intends to spark conversations with his teammate and doesn’t expect it to be a lingering issue.
“I’m going to tell him exactly how I told you guys, and he’ll take it for what it is,” Larson said. “Either way I’m sure he’ll still be upset even if we’re on the same page or not. It’s just a conversation that we’ll have, and we’re both young, we both respect each other a lot, so we’ll both be racing for wins for many years to come.
“I’m not too worried about it. I think if anything it’s probably a small bump in the road. I think if things happen more so in the future, then yes, it gets out of hand. But Hendrick Motorsports I don’t think will ever let it get to that point, and like I said, we have enough respect for each other that I don’t think it will get out of hand at all.”
That said, the season is long … and that likely wasn’t their last battle at the front of the field.
“We’ll just have a conversation, and I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Larson said. “Like I said, he’s going to be upset, which he has a right to be, but I’ll explain my side just like I explained it to you guys, and he’ll believe me or he won’t.”
The Cup Series next races on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.