Saturday's motors: Bowman zips past Larson after late flat and wins at Pocono

Associated Press

Long Pond, Pa. — Alex Bowman helplessly watched teammate Kyle Larson zip past him in the waning laps at Pocono and apologized to his crew over the radio for blowing the lead.

Larson's blown tire cost him so much more. Larson's left front tire went down when his Chevrolet ran over debris less than a mile from the finish — and a fourth straight win in sight — that stunningly slammed NASCAR's hottest driver into the wall.

Ah, so a flat tire is how you beat Kyle Larson.

Alex Bowman, center, driver of car 48, celebrates with his crew after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Pocono Raceway, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Long Pond, Pa.

Bowman had a second chance in a flash and this time would not waste the lead. This is how the last two months have rolled for Hendrick Motorsports — when one driver falters, another one finds a way to victory lane.

Bowman made it six straight wins for Hendrick, and the shredded tire denied Larson's bid for a fourth straight Cup victory Saturday at Pocono Raceway. Bowman was in stunned disbelief as he crossed the line for for his third win of the season.

“This is the strangest win I've ever been a part of,” Bowman said.

Larson laughed at his misfortune. He won three straight Cup races and was in prime position for another at Pocono when he passed Bowman with three laps left in the race. Larson was maybe a mile away from becoming the first driver since former Hendrick champion Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win four consecutive Cup races. Instead, the tire went down on the last corner of the last lap and knocked Larson out of contention.

Bowman went from tough-luck loser to unlikely-winner on the 2 1/2-mile tri-oval track.

Larson said he might have run over debris to cause the tire issue. Bowman was in the right spot to take advantage — from apology to victory — and won for the third time in his last 10 races. He won at Dover and Richmond.

“We got pretty lucky there with Kyle’s misfortune,” Bowman said.

Bowman recently signed a two-year contract extension at Hendrick and wasted little time rewarding their faith in him.

For team owner Rick Hendrick, the wins keep coming.

Bowman started the win streak in May at Dover and Chase Elliott followed the next week at Texas. Larson then ripped off three straight points victories at Charlotte, Sonoma and last week at Nashville — and squeezed in the $1 million All-Star race for four wins, total — all while Hendrick Motorsports became the winningest organization in NASCAR history. All eyes were on Larson as he tried to match Johnson for the longest winning streak this century.

Larson faded to ninth.

“Disbelief, still,” Larson said. “Hate that we didn’t get another win. It would have been cool to win five in a row. I felt something in the middle of the tunnel. I wasn’t sure what it was yet. It finally kind of shredded halfway through that little short shoot there.”

Hendrick has nine wins overall this season and tied its team record for consecutive wins set in 2007.

Bowman won the first of two Cup races this weekend at Pocono.

He just didn't really get to enjoy the spoils of victory like a burnout in his No. 48 Chevy.

“I typically drink all the beers,” he said. “Can't do that because I have to race the car tomorrow.”

Crew chief Greg Ives laughed as he complained he was wet because champagne was poured down his shirt.

“You're welcome," Bowman said.

John Hunter Nemechek won the Truck race earlier Saturday to kick off a packed Pocono schedule. The Xfinity Series races Sunday followed by the second Cup race. Pocono the site of the only NASCAR doubleheader this season with Saturday's race run at 325 miles and Saturday set for 350 miles.

NASCAR will invert the order of the top-20 finishers for the start of Sunday’s race. Chris Buescher, who won a rain-shortened race at Pocono in 2016, starts on the pole. The bottom 18 finishers will start in the same spot.

Bowman is in his sixth full season of Cup racing and his fourth with Hendrick. He never had more than one win in a season and seemingly put all the tools together — with a little luck — to have a breakout season.

Kyle Busch was second, followed by William Byron, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney.

Larson starts Sunday in a backup car and will drop to the rear of the field. He's scheduled to visit with students from the Urban Youth Racing School, the Philly-based program that creates opportunities in racing for minorities and extended an olive branch last year to Larson when he was suspended for using a racial slur while racing online in April 2020.

“We'll try and start another streak tomorrow,” Larson said.

More Saturday's autos

Nemechek holds off Busch in 1-2 KBM Trucks finish at Pocono

Long Pond, Pa. — John Hunter Nemechek stole a win from Kyle Busch then swiped his traditional victory move.

Take a bow, John Hunter. Even if the boss wasn't pleased.

Nemechek beat Busch down the stretch and raced to his fifth Truck Series victory this season, earning bragging rights for Kyle Busch Motorsports on Saturday at Pocono Raceway.

“That’s good for the company. 1-2 again,” Busch said.

Nemechek grabbed the checkered flag and bowed to the crowd — “Rowdy” Busch’s signature celebration.

“I did it today wearing a Rowdy helmet, so it only felt fitting to be able to do that,” Nemechek said. “I'm excited. I don't know exactly how he feels. I think he liked it at Texas. I don't know if he'll like it today. We like to have fun. I feel like we're friends off the racetrack and we can joke around a little bit with each other.”

Nemechek got the last laugh when he denied Busch his third victory in five races the season.

“I’m just super-pumped,” Nemechek said. “Five wins this year and I beat Kyle. Three for five against Kyle is pretty good odds.”

Nemechek, who dropped down from a full-time ride last year in the Cup Series, beat Busch off the final restart with six laps left in the 60-lap race and spoiled Busch’s final race in the series this season. Busch made late contact with Sheldon Creed that derailed his run at the victory.

“Got drilled in the left rear and that basically handed the win to the 4 truck,” Busch said. “We were just fighting for second from here on out.”

Always one of NASCAR’s busiest drivers, Busch pulled double duty at Pocono with a race later in the afternoon in the Cup Series. Pocono is the site of the only NASCAR Cup doubleheader this season. Pocono was set to run a Cup race Saturday afternoon and return Sunday with an Xfinity race and another Cup race to complete the packed race weekend.

Busch finished second, followed by Creed, Tyler Ankrum and Austin Hill.

“I'm sure I'll get a text later about it,” Nemecheck said. “I don't know what he's going to say.”

The Truck Series’ career wins leader with 61, the 36-year-old Busch seemingly had another won in sight until a late caution was called and bunched the field. That was the opportunity Nemechek needed to zip past Busch and prove at Pocono he was the KBM driver to beat. Nemechek beat Busch in all three of Busch’s runner-up finishes.

“John Hunter just slid under me and got the lead,” Busch said.

Busch did score his seventh straight top-two finish.

“Kyle has a rule that if he's in a firesuit, he's not coming to victory lane,” Nemecheck said.

NASCAR only allows Cup drivers to compete in five Xfinity and five Truck Series races a year and Busch uses all his starts. NASCAR first set the limit at 10 races in 2017, cut it to seven in 2018 and then five last year.

“I guess I’ll be back in ’22 some time,” Busch said.

Kyle Busch Motorsports trucks have won six of the last seven races at Pocono.

After 13 of 22 races, Nemechek, Ben Rhodes, Todd Gilliland and Creed are the drivers locked into the Trucks playoffs.

Verstappen wins Styrian GP qualifying for 3rd pole of season

Spielberg, Austria — Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen maintained his momentum over rival Lewis Hamilton by taking pole position for the Styrian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Verstappen became the first driver this weekend to complete a lap below 1 minute, 4 seconds as he timed 1:03.841 in his Red Bull in Q3 to beat Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas by .194.

With Bottas getting a three-place grid penalty from a pitlane incident in Friday’s practice, Verstappen will share the front row with Hamilton. The defending champion trailed his Mercedes teammate by .032 in third.

McLaren’s Lando Norris and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez will start from row two.

“It’s been a very good weekend,” Verstappen said. “Again in qualifying the car was really good to drive. I am super happy to be on pole here at home.”

The Dutch driver called his fastest lap “not too bad.”

“It’s definitely a small track but it’s really hard to get a good lap out of it,” he said. “I think that first lap in Q3 was not too bad, it’s never perfect, but it’s good enough.”

The lap earned Verstappen his second straight pole and third of the season, compared to Hamilton’s two. Both drivers have won three races this season.

At the French GP last week, Verstappen completed a hat trick of pole, fastest lap, and victory when he overtook Hamilton in the penultimate lap.

“It’s never easy but that’s good for racing,” Verstappen said. “I am sure again tomorrow it will be very tight, so hopefully again it will be as interesting as in France.”

Red Bull has won the last three races, while Hamilton is looking for a first triumph since winning the Spanish GP seven weeks ago.

Verstappen drew praise from Hamilton.

“Firstly, well done to Max, he has been so fast this weekend,” said Hamilton, who is chasing a record eighth F1 title this season.

However, Red Bull's dominance left him in doubt about his chances in the race.

“They generally had a quarter of a second on us all weekend. It will be interesting to see whether we can manage it. I don’t think we have the raw pace to overtake them, that’s for sure,” Hamilton said.

"We have been giving it absolutely everything. It wasn’t the greatest of sessions but nonetheless we are still on the front row. I did everything I could and we go into the race tomorrow for a fight.”

Charles Leclerc had the seventh-fastest time after both Ferraris finished outside the top 10 in practice Friday. Leclerc earned pole position in two of the last three GPs.

McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo finished 14th and went out in Q2, a day after he was runner-up to Verstappen in the second practice.

Earlier Saturday, Hamilton timed the fastest lap in the third and final practice as he was just over two-tenths of a second faster than Verstappen.

Verstappen, who leads Hamilton by 12 points in the season standings, was fastest in both practices Friday.

Hamilton also timed the quickest lap in Friday’s second practice but went too wide on a turn, making him one of many drivers who had lap times deleted for exceeding the track limit.

A day after getting a three-place grid penalty for spinning while leaving the Mercedes box, Bottas had another pitlane scare as he narrowly avoided Pierre Gasly, who overlooked the Finnish driver when leaving the AlphaTauri box.

With a track record of just under 1 minute, 3 seconds, the Red Bull Ring has the quickest lap times of the F1 season.

However, it is only the fifth-shortest track, behind Monaco, Netherlands, Mexico, and Brazil. It has three long straights and features the fewest corners — 10, and three of them are taken at full throttle.

It leaves drivers few opportunities to find time, usually making for a tight qualifying.