Did You Notice? … Chase Elliott‘s frustration with Kyle Larson boiling over at Auto Club Speedway this past weekend? Elliott was upset with Larson pinching him on the outside while fighting for the lead three-wide in the Wise Power 400, contact that damaged the No. 9 Chevrolet and inevitably led to a spin that took him out of contention.
“Stupid motherf***er,” Elliott said on the radio right after the incident. “He’s a f***ing idiot.”
Later on, after his spin, spotter Eddie D’Hondt referred to the contact by Larson as a “d*ck move by him.”
Chances are, you’ll see these two play nice in front of the cameras quickly and claim it’s all water under the bridge by Las Vegas Motor Speedway this Sunday (March 6). Hendrick Motorsports is known for its political correctness, and they’re not going to play around with tension between the two most recent NASCAR Cup Series champions. Larson has already apologized in public, making clear he didn’t mean to wreck his teammate intentionally.
“We have enough respect for each other,” Larson said Sunday (Feb. 27). “That I don’t think it will get out of hand at all. … [Elliott is] 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.”
What will happen in private, behind closed doors, is anyone’s guess. Elliott, who recently signed a five-year contract extension to stay at HMS, is clearly happy where he’s at driving the No. 9 car. You just wonder if his inability to win at the rate Larson has is starting to wear on him a bit. Consider …
- The last time Elliott won on an oval track in NASCAR was at Phoenix Raceway in the November 2020 season finale.
- Since Larson joined the team in February 2021, he’s dominated Elliott in the win column, 11-2.
- Larson has won three road course races during that stretch to Elliott’s two, outgunning Elliott at his strongest track type.
- Larson has gone from scandal-plagued to a miraculous comeback, excelling with the sport’s top team after getting fired for uttering a racial slur in April 2020. As that played out in real time last fall, Elliott was involved in a bitter feud with Kevin Harvick, one that nearly took him out of playoff contention and included the 46-year-old veteran calling Elliott’s maturity the equivalent of his nine-year-old son. Opinions varied on the rivalry, but it was the most direct hit to Elliott’s reputation since a similar back-and-forth with Denny Hamlin back in 2017. Even that was more of a one-sided affair after Elliott got bumped out of the lead at Martinsville Speedway, an incident that largely elicited fan sympathy and made Hamlin out to be the bad guy.
Suddenly, Larson’s presence creates a little bit of a seesaw within an organization that looked to be built around Elliott as recently as 14-15 months ago. Now, Elliott’s greatest threat for the title may run within his own organization for the better part of the next decade.
How does HMS handle that internally to make sure they stay on the same page? As we saw with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, when paired up at HMS, only one of them could take home the championship trophy. The duo did get along, despite Johnson winning six of his seven titles during the time they ran together full time (2002-15) while Gordon won zero.
Here’s the difference between that scenario and Larson-Elliott: Gordon had already experienced four titles and several years’ worth of success. His selection of Johnson as a prospect was about the long-term success of HMS, an organization he now helps run as its vice chairman. There was also a clear understanding with the age difference Johnson would inevitably be more successful than Gordon at some point.
That’s not the case with a 25-year-old Elliott, who still has decades left to run in this sport. 13 wins and one championship isn’t something he’s about to rest his laurels and retire on.
HMS prides itself on building the teamwork mentality that’s led to the explosion of multi-car organizations over the past 30 years. But in the end, NASCAR is still an individual sport where only one driver gets to win the race and, inevitably, the championship.
My guess is Gordon’s going to have his hands full. It’s a big early challenge for him in his new role.
Did You Notice? … The level of parity we’ve seen two races into the 2022 NASCAR Cup season? 10 possible top-five finishes have been earned by 10 different drivers. The current point leader and Daytona 500 winner is a rookie, Austin Cindric, who’s got a total of nine Cup starts to his name. The most dominant performance to date has been turned in by a winless driver, Tyler Reddick, whose Richard Childress Racing organization has just one victory of their own over the last three years.
It’s clear the road to the NASCAR playoffs is cloudy this year as the Gen 7 chassis puts everyone on an equal playing field. Consider the sheer number of organizations that have collected the 20 top-10 finishes so far this season.
2022 NASCAR Top-10 Finishes By Team
Stewart-Haas Racing: 4, Team Penske: 3, Hendrick Motorsports: 2, 23XI Racing: 2, Front Row Motorsports: 1, Joe Gibbs Racing: 1, JTG Daugherty Racing: 1, Kaulig Racing: 1, RFK Racing: 1, Rick Ware Racing: 1, Richard Childress Racing: 1, Petty GMS Motorsports: 1, Trackhouse Racing Team: 1
That’s a whopping 13 organizations out of 16 (81.2% of those who own a NASCAR charter). Live Fast Motorsports, Wood Brothers Racing and Spire Motorsports are the lone exceptions.
Compare that list with last year’s NASCAR playoffs, where four teams combined to fill up 13 of the 16 cars on that grid. Early returns show 2022 could be much more competitive with these new spec chassis designed to reduce any advantage the larger mega-teams have over the rest of the field.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Cole Custer’s NASCAR Xfinity Series win at ACS last weekend begs the question: Why didn’t this happen sooner? After one of the worst sophomore slumps in recent history by a Cup Rookie of the Year winner (no finish better than 10th in 2021), Custer ended the year a shell of his former self. But SHR chose to enter him in just one lower-tier race during that season, at Circuit of the Americas where Custer basically logged laps to gain experience for the Cup race the following day. In a sign of how quickly a win like that can rebuild confidence, Custer showed signs of life in the Wise Power 400 and ultimately finished 11th, his best run since Darlington Raceway on Labor Day Weekend last September.
- You gotta love the crazy stats you find two races into a long season. BJ McLeod (29th in points) is currently ahead of drivers like Denny Hamlin, William Byron and Christopher Bell. Of that trio of stars stumbling out of the blocks, it feels like Bell is the most in trouble; you don’t want owner Joe Gibbs to think you’re expendable in a year where his grandson Ty is set to win multiple races down in Xfinity.
- Two races, three penalties for wheels falling off cars after Todd Gilliland was penalized following the race in Fontana, Calif. At some point, one of these four-race crew chief suspensions is going to make its way to one of the top-tier organizations. It’s only a matter of time.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.