Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – TALLADEGA, AL – Christopher Bell won the Busch Light Pole for Sunday’s YellaWood 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a lap of 180.591 mph around the 2.66-mile oval on Saturday – a mere .075-mph faster than Chevrolet’s Kyle Larson – putting the NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders out front in the fifth Playoff race, second of this round.
It’s the series-best fourth pole of the season for Bell, 27, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – and his second at Talladega – matching his Spring pole position. The New Hampshire race winner has scored top five finishes in three of the four Playoff races, suffering a 34th-place finish last week at Texas.
At this stage in the Playoffs and sitting 11th in points (the Top-8 advance to the next round) Bell said earning the pole position is mostly a help in gaining invaluable stage points.
“You can go to the back to the front and the front to the back a handful of times before they pay points at lap 60,” Bell said. “I think winning the pole is a great testament to the team but really will have no effect on winning the race tomorrow.”
Bell’s JGR teammate and fellow championship contender Denny Hamlin will start third, alongside Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola, the 2018 winner of this race. Almirola’s teammate Chase Briscoe and Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain – both Playoff drivers – make up the third row. Chastain won at Talladega in April.
NASCAR Xfinity Series championship leader Noah Gragson, who is filling in for driver Alex Bowman in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, qualified an impressive seventh. Bowman is sitting out this event after suffering concussion-like symptoms last Sunday in the Texas race. William Byron, will start ninth, the last Playoff contender among the Top-10 on the starting grid.
Defending race winner Bubba Wallace will start his No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota 27th on the 37-car grid.
BOWMAN SIDELINED THIS WEEK
Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman announced on Thursday he will not be competing this weekend after experiencing concussion-like symptoms during the week. He crashed his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet during last week’s Playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway but repairs were made and he returned to competition ultimately finishing 29th.
Although Bowman’s absence this week removes him from NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contention in terms of the driver championship, his car will continue on toward the owner’s championship. NASCAR Xfinity Series championship leader Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 this week at Talladega. Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives said he expected that Bowman would be back in the car in the near future.
Ives, a long-time Hendrick Motorsports crew chief, mentioned a couple of areas that immediately occurred to him in terms of safety improvements – from work on the rear of the cars to modifying the drivers compartment to lessen the head movement.
“We can’t just knee-jerk react to it, but we have to react, and try to implement something as calculated as much as you can,” Ives said. “There are small things we can do [soon]. I think you just have to put focus and emphasis on one thing [at a time] and try to get that right.”
On Wednesday of next week, NASCAR is holding a crash test at a facility in Ohio to further develop the car.
A NASCAR spokesman said Saturday that the sanctioning body has been hard at work on evolving the rear clip and bumper structure since early season. And if the test this week goes as expected, there will be modifications made to the car for the 2023 season.
Stewart-Haas Racing driver Chase Briscoe acknowledged the safety issues are always on the minds of drivers – that it is the nature of the sport. But he was confident in NASCAR’s efforts.
“Having more people work on this, the better it is,” Briscoe said.
THE BYRON-HAMLIN FALLOUT
Byron, who will start the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet ninth on Sunday, spoke about the penalty he and his team have been issued following an incident in the Texas race last week.
Byron and his team were issued a 25-point penalty for what NASCAR deemed aggressive driving during a caution period at Texas, however the team is appealing the penalty. The incident involved contact between Byron’s Chevy and Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota, which resulted in Hamlin spinning out during the race. He returned to finish 10th and Byron finished seventh.
They were both running top 3 at the time of the run-in, however, and were racing each other hard for position. Byron took exception to Hamlin running him wide – resulting in Byron’s car brushing the wall. Byron retaliated by bumping the back of Hamlin’s car during a yellow flag (thrown for an unrelated incident). The bump – which Byron insists was not meant to actually spin out Hamlin – effectively ended Hamlin’s shot at the Texas trophy, according to Hamlin.
“I guess it was a little bit different than what I expected,” Byron said of the penalty. “I will let the appeal process take care of that. We accept it for this weekend and move on and look at it like any other weekend.”
Byron said the team compiled a “list of evidence” – with video angles and information, he hopes will at the very least lessen the penalty. And he noted, there was no penalty issued to Joey Logano, who ran Byron high (and into the wall) while racing for the victory during the final laps of the Spring Darlington race this year.
“My intent was never to spin him under caution,” Byron said. “I meant to go up there and bump him like I’ve seen numerous people do, even during that race. There’s a difference in intent there for sure.”
Byron called it “a little bit weird” that NASCAR issued the penalty post-race, but insisted, “We just take what we’re given. We’re glad to be on this stage, glad to be in the Playoffs still have an opportunity to win the next two weeks and we’re not really that far out. But with the severity of the penalty, that’s what we were opposed to. That’s what the appeal’s about, the severity of the penalty.”
For his part, Hamlin agreed the penalty was too late – for different reasons.
“It didn’t help my finish,” Hamlin said. “It didn’t change the fact I could have won the race and instead finished 10th so you have to account for those points too.”
On Tuesday, Byron received that 25-point driver and 25-point team penalty for aggressive driving during a caution period in last Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. And Friday at Talladega, Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team failed pre-race inspection twice – resulting in the ejection of car chief Tyler Jones and the loss of pit stall selection for Sunday’s race.
Both Kaulig Racing team cars – the No. 16 driven by Daniel Hemric and the No. 31 driven by Justin Haley – also failed pre-race inspection losing their respective car chiefs and the choice of a pit stall.