Hendrick Motorsports has dominated the 550 horsepower tracks during the 2021 season. And the winningest team in NASCAR Cup Series history was well on its way for another solid night at the office on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Until it wasn’t.
Sure, Chase Elliott rebounded to finish runner-up to Denny Hamlin, and was reeling the No. 11 Toyota in over the waning laps. Kyle Larson also led 95 early laps, putting his total at an even 2,000 on the season.
Elliott and Larson bounced back to score top-10 finishes, after all four Hendrick Motorsports cars elected not to pit for a lap 99 caution when Joey Gase lost his left rear wheel and pounded the outside wall. But here lies the glaring problem that looms over HMS.
The remainder of the stage went green, and everybody that pitted during the caution made it to the end of the stage on fuel. Gone were stage points for the four cars that were running first through fourth.
Fortunately for the No. 9 team, Elliott raced back onto the lead lap after taking two tires. William Byron, despite a slow two-tire pit stop, was the free pass car at the end of the stage. Larson and Alex Bowman pitted late in the stage and went with four tires, and were able to take the wave around to get back on the lead lap.
“We were on the fortunate end because we got back on the lead lap, didn’t have to wave or get the Lucky Dog,” Elliott said post race.
Even at a deficit to start the final stage, Byron surged through the field, at one point cracking the top five. That came after the No. 24 Chevrolet led seven laps earlier in the race, though having to take the initial green flag from the rear for failing pre-race technical inspection multiple times.
The No. 24 car was a hot rod all night long.
“I thought we were really fast,” Byron said. “We came from the back to the front, took the lead and then obviously had that caution. And then we had the strategy deal with not being able to make it on fuel and had to recover from that. We were able to drive all the way back to the front from the back again, so that was twice today.
“We had an awesome car. I think it was right there with the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin). We‘ll just have to keep bringing that speed.”
Bad luck struck Byron again with 43 laps to go, as the No. 24 car had a flat right rear tire. Over the final laps, he was able to rebound to 18th, currently four points below the Round of 8 cutline heading to Talladega Superspeedway.
Of his Talladega outlook, 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.”
Meanwhile, Bowman made his final scheduled pit stop with 56 laps remaining in the race while running in the back half of the top 15. Just a few laps later, the No. 48 Chevrolet needed to return to pit road to address a loose wheel after the valve stem got knocked off a tire.
Bowman finished the race a disappointing 22nd, earning just 15 points on the evening. The No. 48 car enters the wild card Talladega race 11th in the championship standings, 13 below the cutline, which is currently held by Brad Keselowski.
“We weren‘t great,” Bowman said of his race. “The stage two strategy just didn‘t work out for us and it put us in a tough spot there to start stage three. 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 and strategy we needed.”
Being in a deficit isn’t foreign to either Byron or Bowman. Just last week in the Round of 16 cutoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway, both drivers raced their way into the next round of the playoffs, which included the No. 24 team gaining 20 points on the bubble.
However, two unpredictable races make up the rest of the playoff round. Byron has consecutive top-five finishes at Talladega, while Bowman has never finished worse than eighth at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.