Sunday marked my very first Cup Series race as a media member. I’ve been to plenty of races in my lifetime, but none quite like this. I had the privilege of covering the final race of the Round of 12 from inside the garage, on the grid, and throughout the track.
We arrived at the track around 7:30 a.m. to secure a good parking spot and ensure my brother had a good spot in line to meet his favorite driver, Kyle Larson. We stopped at the credential booth to pick up our media passes and headed straight to the fan zone to get in line at the Hendrick hauler.
By 10 a.m., the biggest Kyle Larson fan I know had a brand new diecast signed by the man himself (as well as the biggest smile I’ve ever seen). Shortly thereafter, we headed to the Cup garage in hopes of talking to some drivers and teams about the race ahead.
Before we get there, let’s take a step back.
Practice, held early Saturday afternoon, went just about how everyone expected. AJ Allmendinger topped the board in his 16 Kaulig Racing Chevy with the 2 of Austin Cindric in tow. The 24 of William Byron, 22 of Joey Logano, and 99 of Daniel Suárez rounded out the top-five.
It was almost an identical story in qualifying with the 22 taking the top spot. Behind him, Byron, Suárez, the 8 of Tyler Reddick, and Cindric made up the top five spots.
Back to pre-race.
Since the teams raced at such a different type of track last week at Talladega, I was curious to know how the drivers switched into “road course mode” to prepare for this weekend.
“It’s just something you’ve gotta learn to do,” Todd Gilliland, driver of the 38 First Phase Ford told me, “Last weekend we were watching film and stuff like that, where here it’s all about learning the race track and learning the challenges that come along with it.”
He mentioned that obviously the cars are set up a lot differently based upon the type of track, and we watched as the teams worked on their cars’ setups before taking them to the grid.
After speaking with Todd for a few more minutes, we headed to the grid for the pre-race ceremonies. We watched the driver introductions as well as Dale Jr. and Jeff Burton’s pre-race show. (We even made our TV debut!)
As the drivers began to gather at their cars, we decided to stick with the 21 Wood Brothers Racing team of Harrison Burton. We spoke with him and the team for a little while before the anthem and invocation began.
As the grid dissolved and drivers were told to start their engines, we finally headed to our seats. Just like that, the final race of the Round of 12 was off and running.
The 1 of Ross Chastain, 6 of Brad Keselowski, 17 of Chris Buescher, 27 of Loris Hezemans, and 50 of Conor Daly were all sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments. The 10 of Aric Almirola was also sent, but for an engine change. The last driver to join them was the 78 of Josh Williams who was also forced to serve a pass-through penalty.
As the green flag flew, it was the 22 of Logano and 24 of Byron on the front row. On the first lap, the 3 of Austin Dillon missed the front chicane and was forced to serve a pass-through. The 18 of Kyle Busch and 47 of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would also be plagued by this chicane.
Most of the non-playoff field pitted within the closing laps of stage one as they had no need for stage points. During these stops, the 42 of Ty Dillon was penalized for having his crew over the wall too soon. Logano held on to win the first stage.
At the restart, it was the 8 of Tyler Reddick and 16 of AJ Allmendinger out front. One lap into the stage, Allmendinger took the lead from Reddick. At lap 39, the 48 of Noah Gragson (in for an injured Alex Bowman) and 7 of Corey LaJoie missed the back chicane and were forced to come to a stop. The 1 of Chastain did the same just three laps later.
With more non-playoff drivers pitting before the end of the stage, the 1 of Chastain earned the stage two victory. The final stage restart once again saw Reddick and Allmendinger out front. On lap 72, playoff driver Daniel Suárez fell one lap down and out of the top-eight in points.
After a round of green flag pit stops, the 9 of Chase Elliott found himself in the lead. On lap 94, the 8 of Reddick, who had been running so well all day, missed the back chicane and was forced to come to a stop. He did not lose any spots, but lost significant time.
On lap 104, the caution was brought out for the first time (other than stage breaks) due to a piece of signage that had fallen onto the track. While the leaders stayed out, the 20 of Christopher Bell was the first car to pit.
The restart saw Allmendinger and Elliott out front. Remember how many cautions the end of the Xfinity race had? I wondered if that had worried any of the Cup drivers.
“I think this year in general we’ve probably had more cautions than ever and I think that this race will be no different,” Gilliland told me. “From all I’ve heard and watched, the end of this race can get pretty rough.”
Rough it was. On lap 108, the 22 of Logano and 43 of Erik Jones got together and spun, collecting the 14 of Chase Briscoe, 3 of Austin Dillon, and 24 of William Byron. During the caution, NASCAR decided to red flag the race for track repairs.
With the race going into overtime, Gilliland made clear how frustrating the two-lap rule is when compared to a much shorter track like Bristol.
“Michael [McDowell] and I were just talking this morning, there’s just so much time for another caution to happen, especially when we’re all bunched up like that. Cautions breed cautions, especially when there’s only two laps left,” he said.
On the overtime attempt, it was the 4 of Kevin Harvick and 20 of Bell up front with Bell running the freshest tires. Turn one collected the field once again, this time taking the 12 of Ryan Blaney, 34 of Michael McDowell, 9 of Elliott, 77 of Mike Rockenfeller, and 26 of Daniil Kvyat.
Since everyone involved was able to get back on track, the race remained green and Bell took the white flag. In a must-win situation, he did exactly that. He burned it down right in front of us and took his checkered flag before giving it to a young fan.
The 99 of Daniel Suárez, 5 of Kyle Larson, 48 of Alex Bowman, and 2 of Austin Cindric were eliminated from the playoffs. The Cup Series will next take on Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, October 16th at 2:30.
After one exhausting yet amazing day, we made it back to our hotel and crashed at approximately 9 p.m. Thank you to Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton for giving us a great day at an amazing track!
All photos taken by me.