Saturday, August 13, 2022

NASCAR Crash Course: A tale of two Nashville races for Hendrick Motorsports

Nashville Superspeedway’s Ally 400 played right into the hands of an old Dolly Parton quote. “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.”

Indeed, once lightning hit near this 1.33-mile facility, the first of three major delays, Hendrick Motorsports acted like it struck them. Within minutes of the race resuming, Alex Bowman crashed after contact, just as William Byron went limping to the garage with a steering issue. The team’s two remaining drivers, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, soon found themselves at the rear of the field due to a potential loose wheel and pit road speeding, respectively.

That threw the balance of power to Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas. Leading 240 of the first 244 laps, it felt like a foregone conclusion any one of Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. or pole sitter Denny Hamlin were headed to victory lane.

But a funny thing happened in the midst of those delays: HMS didn’t give up. Larson zoomed despite regular crew chief Cliff Daniels serving a four-race suspension, while Elliott and head wrench Alan Gustafson broke down the problems with his car. Elliott’s loose wheel allowed them to make major changes at the rear of the field, all of which worked perfectly once the race resumed at night with a far better level of grip.

“I was pretty confident we were going the right direction,” Gustafson said. “We were going to be in position to do what we needed to do.”

Elliott showed off just how much better it was, flexing his muscle by blowing past a half-dozen drivers on a lap 210 restart that looked like a video game move come to life.

 “That was kind of the moment in the race,” Gustafson added, “I was like, all right, we should win this race.”

This much we know: there was sure something special about the No. 9 car from that point on. Elliott moved up and promptly disposed of all three JGR cars in front of him, then survived a few late-race cautions that jumbled up the field on pit strategy. Staying out on old tires late, he cruised ahead of Kurt Busch to win his second race of the season, solidifying his hold on the points lead and potential No. 1 playoff seed.

Behind him, Larson wound up fourth, an impressive recovery for a Hendrick Motorsports program that was rained on just a few hours earlier.

“Proud to have struggled as bad as we did,” Elliott said, “As bad as we were at the beginning of the race, to be able to adjust on it, take advantage of the opportunities we had to try to fix it and then to hit on it and be able to execute on it … to be able to finish the event strong is not an easy thing to do.

Traffic Report

Green: Team Penske — Penske was another team off the pace most of the night. Ryan Blaney spun, Austin Cindric fell a lap down at one point and Joey Logano slid backwards with handling problems. Somehow, when the checkered fell, a decision to keep all of them out on pit strategy left the trio solidly inside the top 10

“It’s an ugly top 10,” said ninth-place finisher Logano, “But it’s a top 10.”

Yellow: Bubba Wallace — A 12th-place finish was a miracle for Wallace considering how many obstacles he overcame throughout the course of the night. The fastest car in Friday’s practice was hamstrung by a poor qualifying run, then multiple poor pit stops and loose wheels that got him a lap down at one point and kept him from contending. Wallace was so mad he refused to talk with crew chief Bootie Barker at times during the race, including after the checkered flag. That’s a feud that bears watching this week.   

Red: Joe Gibbs Racing — Could you think of a more catastrophic ending for a team that dominated most of the race, leading 250 of 300 laps? A last-ditch effort to pit for fresh tires under the race’s final caution backfired, leaving Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Truex stuck in mid-pack. Hamlin fought to sixth, Christopher Bell was eighth while the Kyle Busch-Truex combo finished a disastrous 21st and 22nd in the final running order.  

Speeding Ticket: NASCAR officiating — This week’s controversy will center around officials not calling a caution when Brad Keselowski and Cole Custer crashed off turn 4 during the final restart. Custer was able to keep on going while Keselowski’s car was a mess, limping in the grass on the backstretch at one point as leaders flew by at over 150 miles an hour.

Just moments earlier, a blown engine for Josh Bilicki, who darted right off the racetrack, forced a yellow that bunched up the field. So why wouldn’t on-track contact do the same?

Take a look at this clip from the last lap and judge for yourself whether the yellow should have been thrown.

Oops!

The race’s first caution for contact came when Corey LaJoie and Alex Bowman got into it off turn 2. Initially, from the replays it was hard to tell whether the two cars ever touched.

Bowman quickly clarified, calling LaJoie “A REALLY good race car driver” sarcastically on the radio before parking his car inside the garage.

As the rain delays came and boredom ensued, LaJoie attempted to make light of the situation with a shirt idea I’m not so sure Bowman bought into.

While the incident left both drivers steaming, turns out the big winner was actually Bowman’s organization, as FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass points out.

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