Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Kyle Larson Smokes the Field at Homestead-Miami

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

If the race for second had been for the win, the Dixie Vodka 400 would have been an instant classic as Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger went door to door for the final laps. It was all for second place, though, because while they were battling, Kyle Larson was out for a Sunday drive.

Larson first took the lead on lap 37 and from there, the No. 5 was the class of the field. Larson led 199 of 267 laps on the day. Was it just clean air? That played a role, but at one point, when he was caught in traffic on a late restart, Larson ran down the drivers in front of him while shaving four tenths of a second off the lead in a lap.

A pit road miscue by Martin Truex Jr., who nearly missed his pit and then checked hard in front of Larson, who sent the No. 19 spinning into his pit box, gave Larson the lead on the final restart. He held off challenges from Denny Hamlin, Chastain and Allmendinger before pulling away as the latter waged a side-by-side battle for second behind him. The win secures the No. 5 team a spot in the Championship 4 for the owner’s title.

And don’t forget Truex. The pit road spin saw Truex fall from the race lead to 19th on the final restart. But instead of letting frustration take over, Truex bulldozed his way through the field to finish an impressive sixth, including a hard-fought late pass of teammate Hamlin, who’s still in the title hunt and below the cut line. Truex didn’t cut Hamlin any slack, taking the spot, and the point, away. He is absolutely a threat to win next week at Martinsville Speedway.

What… is the buzz about?

Following the suspension of Bubba Wallace for the race following an ugly on-track retaliation incident with Larson last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it appeared that NASCAR had had enough. But fans are still talking about the penalty to Wallace, with many still wondering exactly where the line is. Wallace’s move was dangerous, on a fast intermediate track and a right-rear hook designed to send Larson straight into the wall. The suspension wasn’t overly harsh.

But there have been other, equally egregious incidents that drew lesser penalties, or none at all. Perhaps the most unsettling was Ty Gibbs’ shove of Ty Dillon on an open pit road which resulted in Dillon nearly hitting a NASCAR official. That’s every bit as dangerous as Wallace’s move, but Gibbs only got a monetary fine, not a week’s forced vacation. Noah Gragson caused damage to about a dozen cars at Road America after a retaliatory move in a blind corner. Nobody was hurt, but they easily could have been. Which, by the way, turned out be the situation with Larson. So, what, exactly, will draw a suspension?

And now that Wallace has sat out a week, will NASCAR continue to penalize retaliation similarly? The Cup car, in particular, doesn’t need to hit all that hard to injure a driver. Any attempt at retaliation at speed should draw the same penalty. Otherwise, it’s a hollow declaration.

Speaking of hollow, the cars NASCAR took to tear down at its research and development center this week? The Nos. 7, 77 and 78. It’s the playoffs. Why on Earth is the sanctioning body tearing down these cars instead of playoff contenders? Those are the teams with the most to gain by trying something. They should also have the most to lose.

Where… did the other key players wind up?

Pole winner and defending Homestead winner William Byron led the first 36 laps and for a while after that, it seemed like he was one of the few drivers who could race near the front with Larson. But as the shadows grew longer, the handling on the No. 24 began to fade, and Byron fell out of the top 10 with just under 70 laps to go. From there, it only got worse. Byron continued to fall, dropping to 18th before a late rally to 12th. That’s good enough to keep him above the cut line by a mere five points heading to Martinsville. He can’t afford a mistake next week.

Joey Logano led the points entering the day and was also already locked into the championship race, and he was probably glad he did. Early on, Logano finished 10th and ninth in the opening stages, which has been a typical Logano under-the-radar run. What wasn’t typical was Logano getting shuffled to 18th in the final rundown. He’s still a title favorite based on his consistency, but he could use a little momentum boost at Martinsville.

John Hunter Nemechek filled in for the suspended Wallace, and his day got off to a bit of a rocky start as Nemechek spun on his own on lap 31. Damage to the No. 45 appeared minimal, but Nemechek was forced behind the wall to check the car’s diffuser. The good news? Nemechek was running in the top five at the time, and racing with the leaders in a Cup race is information he can file away for the future. Also, he wound up finishing just one lap down. The incident handed Nemechek a 27th-place finish, but his brief run was better than that.

When… was the moment of truth?

It wasn’t quite vintage Kurt Busch-Ricky Craven at Darlington Raceway, but the fierce battle for the runner-up spot was fantastic. Had it been for the win, everyone would be talking about the best race of the season so far. As it is, Chastain and Allmendinger put on a textbook example of hard, aggressive and respectful racing. Those aren’t mutually exclusive, and when they come together like they did Sunday, fans are treated to a show.

Allmendinger and Chastain acknowledged each other after the race; there was no bad blood, no harsh words.

Allmendinger, who’s currently racing for a NASCAR Xfinity Series title, will take over the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing full time in 2023, and if that’s the kind of day he can have with a car he’s sharing, it bodes well for when the car is built and set up for him exclusively.

Kaulig Racing has turned up the wick in the second half of the season. Allmendinger has eight top 10s in 16 races, with seven of those coming in his last eight starts. Justin Haley, who’s running a competitive Cup car for the first time in his career, finished in the top 15 in five of the last six races. He’s learning, and as he does, the team is getting better by the week. This team is headed toward wins. Will it take off like Trackhouse Racing Team did in year two? Maybe not, but the field will know it’s there.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

With the final playoff elimination on the line, the Cup Series heads to Martinsville Speedway for 500 laps of tight-quarters short-track racing. It should be a barn-burner but the Next Gen car has performed at its worst at the short tracks this year, a stark contrast to the previous versions of the Cup car.

So not only will the remaining playoff drivers have to contend with each other, but they’ll have to take on the track knowing that passing may be at a premium. Track position will be critical for the entire day and getting trapped deep in the field is a recipe for losing laps in a hurry, ground that cannot easily be made up.

If the race is as lackluster as the spring version, keep an eye on NASCAR this winter. There may very well be adjustments to the Next Gen to make short track racing more competitive. It’ll be a challenge to make changes without inadvertently giving someone an advantage, so keep an eye on what NASCAR does in the coming weeks.

How… do the title contenders stack up with two races to go?

Leaving Homestead, the field for the finale is shaping up, little by little.

Martinsville will tell the tale, but for two drivers, it’s now a must-win for all practical purposes. Both Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell need that W to advance, but neither has found any magic on the half-mile in the handful of starts they each have. Briscoe has one top 10 in three starts and an average finish of 19.3 while Bell has a top 10 in five starts and a slightly better 17.4 average. Could they surprise this time out? Sure, but don’t bet the farm on it.

Ryan Blaney is 18 points below the cut, and he’ll need a great day at the paperclip to move on. But Blaney leads active drivers with a 10.2 Martinsville average finish, with seven top 10s in 13 starts. If he has a great finish and Chase Elliott or Byron and Hamlin have terrible results, he can make it happen without winning. But he could also win his way in based on those numbers.

Hamlin is also below the cut, but just by five points. He’s a question mark because while he’s ben rock solid in the playoffs, he was wildly inconsistent before they started. He also has a tendency to get in his own head when the chips are down.

Hamlin is the active win leader at Martinsville, but his last win came in 2015 and he’s finished 24th or worse in the last two races there. Call him the wild card. He wouldn’t be a surprise if he made the final cut.l, but he wouldn’t be one if he missed it, either.

Byron saw an opportunity for more padding to his five-point hold slip away in the last stage Sunday. He’s been inconsistent in the playoffs, scoring top 10s in the first four races but none since. What’s he really got going for him? The race he won to get into the playoffs was the spring event at Martinsville. Byron’s probably the only real question among the current top four.

Logano’s locked into the title race, and he looks good for the title based on consistency. Chastain should get in as well with a 19-point cushion over Hamlin, and he and Logano are cut from similar cloth, ultra-aggressive when it’s all on the line. He could win it all; perhaps the biggest obstacle will be a lack of experience. It’s Trackhouse’s first playoff appearance, and it has nothing in the bank as an organization when it comes to racing for a championship.

Championship experience is something Elliott does have, but he hasn’t captured his summer magic this fall. He won at Talladega Superspeedway but has four finishes of 20th or worse in eight races, and just one other top five. He needs to put the lightning back in the bottle.

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About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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johndawgchapman

The powers that be in the sport seem to be continuing to send a mixed message about on track retaliation. On one hand they had Wallace sitting this one out. Message one, it’s very dangerous, & we’re serious about policing it.
But on the other hand, they continue to show replays of the incident in their promo trailers. I’ve probably seen it at least a half dozen times.
Message two, it’s good for business.

wildcats2016

you are so right. The usual mixed messages. NASCAR shows the massive pile ups and wild crashes as promos for the restrictor plate races while on the other hand they say “oh we’re trying to slow the cars down”. Can’t have it both ways. My favorite driver retired years ago and now I at least can watch a RP race without the dread I once did.

I don’t want to see anyone get hurt at all.

Kurt Smith

1,000% agree, NASCAR is constantly touting their safety initiatives while showing the massive wrecks in pack races in every commercial.

I remember when Carl Edwards’s car flew into the fence at Talladega and fans were injured, one woman had her jaw broken as I recall. That crash was in the promos for Talladega for years.

Bill B

I wouldn’t say anyone but Logano should feel good going to Martinsville. Chastain’s 19 point cushion is nothing and could be wiped out by the end of stage two.

Carl D.

Chastain better stay out of Hamlin’s windshield. This is Martinsville and Denny thinks he owes Ross one.

Echo

That’s east, Ross needs to take choker Denny out as soon as he can after the race starts. Whoops

Bill B

I think the tight points going into this cutoff round will keep any of the hopeful 8 from getting too crazy (well maybe Briscoe and Bell). No matter how good you think you are at wrecking someone and not involving yourself, it’s still a risky move that could end your day as well as your victim’s (and who’s to say the victim won’t pull a Kenseth). So I don’t think this is a race anyone will be settling vendettas and I am sure NASCAR will remind the non-contenders as well.

mike

I hope Larson goes out and wins Phoenix. That’ll really make for a headache for NASCAR explaining their playoffs to the casual fan at the Cup level…the 5 team would win the Owner’s Title but not the driver’s title.

I know it happens in Xfinity a lot (used to more when Cup points were counted), but still…its a mess to explain to the casual sports fan.

DoninAjax

NA$CAR will only allow one of the four to win the final event. The other drivers are told in the driver’s meeting to stay out of the way and run behind the four. Any driver who tries to interfere with the four will be told to back off or suffer a penalty. They did it to Johnson (he got to third) and Larsen (he was running down the four) when they had the audacity to try to win the example of Brian’s product.

DoninAjax

In addition to the 7, 77 and 78 NA$CAR should check the 15 and 51. They seem to be in the event to bring out cautions. Maybe NA$CAR can find out why they run up to 2 seconds a lap slower and get lapped quicker than anyone else. They are cautions waiting to happen and rolling roadblocks. The 78 was about to be lapped on Sunday and stayed up against the wall and made the leader go under him to make the pass. I’m sure he was on the radio to the control tower and said, “I tried!” They play musical drivers in the cars but it doesn’t matter.

Jeremy

Speaking of Bubba… the reason every other story is about Bubba whenever possible is because he draws clicks and reactions. Look at articles this week, I think I’ve seen 4 or 5 replies at most on any column, most with just 2 or 3. Last week every single Bubba article generated about a gajllion responses (that’s a technical term for “a lot”, for those who are not mathematically inclined – lol)!

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