It started with rain and ended with heat.
The worst kind too. Heat between teammates — two recent NASCAR Cup champions, both popular with fans and fellow racers.
It wasn’t overly obvious to casual viewers, but obvious to those who fancy themselves body language experts and those who can also read between the lines.
Kyle Larson won Watkins Glen, Chase Elliott didn’t, and now we’re going to see who will dive into the 16th and final playoff spot.
Good lord, who writes this stuff?
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First Gear: Chase Elliott pays for the outside lane pick
Twice this year, Larson took the win in the closing stages of a race. Twice this year, Larson has grabbed with one hand while using the other to stiffly pull Elliott out of the picture.
And remember, they’re teammates under the big stormy tent at Hendrick Motorsports.
At Fontana in February, Elliott was attempting a late pass in the very top lane, near the wall. Larson, who was side by side for the lead with Joey Logano to his left, went about two lanes down the track to block Elliott and essentially wreck his Chevy.
Chase was pissed off, to say the least, and he wasn’t kept on the team radio.
On Sunday at the Glen, on a late restart with Chase leading and taking the outside lane, and Larson running second and just to the right of Chase, Larson thought he had one chance to win the race.
And he got it, driving deep into the right-hander turn 1, locking up his right front wheel and basically giving Chase bum momentum to the left and off the line of scrimmage.
Kyle Larson won, Chase Elliott finished fourth. That’s racin’, right? Time to move on, right?
Good . . .
Second gear: Kyle Larson says getting past Chase Elliott was the only chance to win
Larson essentially broke up the restart like a coach considering a fourth-down conversion.
“I think it’s dangerous to take the left lane here at Watkins Glen,” he said of his teammate’s lane choice. “It’s definitely the preferred lane as a leader, but as each restart goes further into the match, whether it’s at the end of the stage or the end of the match, you put yourself in a vulnerable position to get familiar with exit.”
I’m not kidding. But then again, as they say, all’s fair in love, war, and delayed reboots. Especially when bonus playoff points are involved.
“I did what I felt I had to do,” Larson said. “. . . To get the win and get some bonus points that we desperately need going into the playoffs.”
Honorably, the plaintiffs would like to call to the stand, Mr. Billy Clyde “Chase” Elliott. Mr. Elliott, your version of what happened, please?
“Just a huge congratulations to Kyle and everyone on the No. 5 team. Congratulations to everyone at Hendrick Motorsports for another win.”
“Congratulations. He did a great job. Seriously, they deserve it. I can’t wait to go to Daytona next week and try to get one for our team.”
But did you seem pretty flustered when you were talking to Rich Hendrick after the fight? Sure, you can share some of the frustration.
“I just congratulated him. Like I said, it’s always good to see HMS win. The boss deserves all the wins, all the great things that happen with this company. Proud of it. I’m looking forward to next week.”
That’s the worst kind of anger out there, the kind a man won’t even recognize. If I’m Kyle Larson, I might not be sleeping with one eye open, but I’m watching those mirrors for the next few weeks.
Third gear: NASCAR at Daytona with one playoff spot up for grabs
The Larson-Elliott dust-up initially overshadowed the new playoff picture. Until Sunday, when we didn’t get a 16th different winner for 2022, many scenarios were still in play.
Now, we’ve narrowed it down to just a few and let’s try to round them up into a handy guide as we head to Daytona for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Saturday night.
The 15 different winners this season are locked in the play-offs, which start on September 4 at Darlington. That includes Kurt Busch, who is hoping to return after missing a sixth straight race this week.
The two non-winners with the most points over the course of the season are Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. and Blaney holds a 25-point advantage for 16th place. Mathematically, they are the only two non-winners who can get there on points without a win.
But both of those drivers are disqualified if a different non-winner takes the Daytona. Past superspeedway winners in this group include: Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski.
By the nature of superspeedway racing, it would be a chaotic race even without the playoff implications. All the deciphering of the updated in-race playoff image, especially during late Saturday nights, is exactly what NASCAR had in mind when it moved the Daytona summer race to this slot on the schedule.
Fourth gear: Kimi Raikkonen, others, learn stock-car racin’ is not easy
Let’s go back to New York for a moment to check in on our international guests and see how their Sunday went.
We’re not here to gloat, just to remind racing fans how difficult it is to make the jump from sleek, purpose-built racing rockets to the full-body world of stock car racing.
There was some serious talent at Watkins Glen to give NASCAR a look-see behind the wheel. Especially former Formula 1 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, who spent much of the afternoon in the back half of the field before someone else’s wreck forced him off the course and into a tire barrier.
He was tied with a 37th-place finish, but didn’t seem daunted.
“It was good fun,” he said. “I felt more confident all the time. We had good laps. Its a shame. The car felt like it had a lot of speed, but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
All five of the visiting internationals, from the worlds of open-wheel or sports car racing, finished 30th or worse: Mike Rockenfeller (30th), Loris Hezemans (33rd), Daniil Kvyat (36th), Raikkonen (37th) and Kyle Tilley ( 39th).
A look at Jimmie Johnson’s IndyCar races tells us that these things work the other way, too.
— Contact Ken Willis at email@example.com
This article originally appeared in The Daytona Beach News-Journal: NASCAR: Kyle Larson ‘had to’ drop Chase Elliott for Watkins Glen win