CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rick Hendrick first began to worry when Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman had electrical issues at nearly same time.
By the time reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott was deliberately crashed by Kevin Harvick and nearly knocked out of the playoffs, Hendrick had seen enough destruction on The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I was upset. I was ready to go home. It was time to get the helicopter and get out of here," Hendrick said. “We wrecked everything we had down there.”
Good thing the boss stuck around: Larson rallied from his early electrical issues Sunday to win for the seventh time this season and storm into the third round of NASCAR's playoffs. It ended a topsy-turvy day for Hendrick Motorsports in which Larson and Elliott advanced, Bowman and William Byron were eliminated, and Elliott was nearly sabotaged by a vengeful Harvick.
Harvick laid in wait to deliver payback on Elliott for Elliott costing him a win at Bristol three weeks ago and the retaliation came at about the halfway mark. Harvick sent Elliott into the wall and on the verge of playoff elimination.
Just as the crews for Larson and Bowman had done earlier to salvage their races, Elliott's No. 9 team went to work and got the driver back into contention. And even with his bumper flapping in the wind off the back of his Chevrolet, Elliott drove through the field and into position to ruin another day for Harvick.
The team said on their radio Elliott should wreck Harvick if given the chance and maybe that caused Harvick to worry. As Elliott closed on Harvick as they hurtled into the first turn with 10 laps remaining, Harvick botched the entry almost as if he was defensively driving in his rearview mirror
Harvick drove directly into the wall, crumpled the front of his Ford and the crowd erupted as Elliott cruised through the crash scene. Just like that, Harvick's title run came to its earliest end since the elimination format began in 2014.
Harvick had advanced to the third round the past seven years and all the way to the title race five times. He didn't admit to wrecking Elliott as payback for Bristol, but he didn't deny it, either.
“You remember Bristol," Harvick said the first time he was asked about his intentions. The second time he was asked he responded “sometimes real life teaches you good lessons.”
On the day he made his 750th career start, he finished 33rd and was eliminated along with Christopher Bell, Byron and Bowman.
When asked if the two are now even, Harvick simply walked away.
Elliott subtly masked his pleasure.
“As far as Kevin goes, I just want to wish them a merry offseason and a happy Christmas,” Elliott said.
Is it over as far as Elliott is concerned?
“For us, we're just eyes forward and happy to be moving on," Elliott said. "That's the big picture. We'll keep fighting.”
Larson, meanwhile, had plunged to 36th when he began to lose power. The lengthy stops to change the battery and the alternator belt saved his race and staved off his own startling flirtation with an early playoff exit.
“I noticed my battery was going low, I was getting stressed out, ‘Like man, I’m not going to get knocked out of the playoffs like this!’ It wasn’t looking too good," Larson said. "You think you’re good then all of a sudden you’re running like 40th. I knew I was going to have some sketchy moments. I just had to pick my way through traffic and stay calm.”
Larson became the first driver in NASCAR history to win three road course races in a season. He passed Denny Hamlin for the lead with eight laps remaining to become the first driver since Kasey Kahne in 2006 to win both the Coca-Cola 600 in May and Charlotte's fall race in the same season.
It was the 36th overall win at Charlotte in any configuration and all series for Hendrick Motorsports, which is headquartered five minutes away from the track.
The Larson victory ended Elliott's streak of two consecutive wins on the hybrid road course/oval that Charlotte officials designed in 2018 to add an interesting new circuit to the playoffs. The venue didn't disappoint on Sunday as drivers jockeyed over 109 laps trying to avoid playoff elimination.
“Just a wild race for so many different people,” Larson said. “So many drivers had to overcome something. I don’t think there was anybody that probably had a smooth race at all.”
Ty Dillon will return to full-time competition next season as the driver for GMS Racing in its inaugural Cup season.
Dillon has run four Cup races this year with Gaunt Brothers Racing and 11 Xfinity Series races with three different teams. He lost his ride at the end of 2020 and has been trying to claw his way back into a seat, and GMS Racing said Dillon was the only driver the team seriously looked at for the job.
Dillon will drive the No. 94 Chevrolet for the team in an alliance with Richard Childress Racing and ECR Engines. The car number dates to the 1990s when current GMS Racing president Mike Beam partnered with Bill Elliott to form Bill Elliott Racing to field the No. 94.
The original Bill Elliott Racing shop is still a current part of the GMS Racing facility.
RICK WARE RACING
Rick Ware Racing will be a full Ford team in 2022 with an alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing and Roush Yates Engines.
RWR has fielded four cars per race this year and owns three charters and leases a fourth. The team owner is under pressure to unload some of the charters to focus on fielding competitive cars.
Ware said Sunday he will have two cars next year, perhaps a third.
“I’m not prepared to run four cars at this time,” Ware said.
Daniel Craig capped his final opening weekend as James Bond with a stop at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he waved the green flag on NASCAR's playoff race.
Craig is a car enthusiast — he said he's currently driving an “Audi RS6 which is quite pokey” — and has previously tested for Aston Martin on a closed course. Sunday was his first NASCAR race.
The opening race of the third round of the playoffs Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Kyle Busch is the defending race winner.