Column: Elliott angry with teammate Larson as playoffs loom

CHARLOTTE, NC — Kyle Larson has only two wins this season, and both came at the expense of teammate Chase Elliott.

The relationship between NASCAR’s last two Cup champions appeared shaky Sunday night at Watkins Glen International as Larson celebrated the victory and Elliott sought out team management for what appeared to be a spirited conversation.

The 2020 Cup champion and NASCAR’s most popular driver had just clinched the regular-season title, but Elliott dominated the race and might have earned his fifth win of the year had Larson not passed his teammate on the final restart.

Larson forced Elliott to miss the corner and back into traffic as Larson cruised to his first win since February at Fountain. He ran Elliott into the wall to win that race.

“I’m not proud of it,” Larson said as he got out of his car Sunday. “I don’t like to do it. But at that point it was my only shot at victory. I haven’t won much this year. I felt like I did what I had to do to benefit our playoff run.”

Meanwhile, Elliott was engaged in a conversation with Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and vice chairman Jeff Gordon. Elliott seemed to do most of the talking, and after he left, he had little to offer in an interview about the race’s finish or his regular-season title.

“Congratulations to Kyle and everyone on Team 5. Congratulations to everyone at Hendrick Motorsports on another win,” was Elliott’s first response.

Larson said he expected a conversation between the two at the Hendrick meeting. What would Elliot say?

“Congratulations. He did a great job. Seriously, they deserve it,” Elliott said. “I’m looking forward to going to Bristol next week and trying to get one for our team.”

And what about Rick Hendrick, did he offer any words of comfort when one of his drivers was celebrating and the other was sulking? Elliot refused to bite.

“Like I said, it’s always nice to see HMS win,” Elliott said. “The boss deserves all the wins, all the great things that happen to this company. I am proud of it. We look forward to next week.”

Elliott, according to multiple reports, was waiting for Bristol – apparently so angry at the time that he forgot the regular season finale was Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. The Cup Series will not be held in Bristol until September 17 in the first round of the knockout play-offs.

It’s unlikely that Hendrick’s camp will let this feud simmer for a month and reach Bristol, where a deliberate revenge could knock someone out of the playoffs early. But Elliott and Larson have had a difficult relationship since Larson joined Hendrick’s four-car fleet in 2021.

NASCAR and HMS were still operating under COVID-19 protocols, and personal interaction was limited when Larson first joined the team. It wasn’t until midseason that the two spent significant time together, and by then Larson had already established himself as NASCAR’s top driver.

He was a new driver at HMS and teammates with the defending Cup champion, but Larson outlasted Elliott and won 10 races en route to his first Cup title. If there were any ill feelings, they didn’t surface until this February in Fontana, when Elliott was clearly aggrieved by the way Larson battled him for the win.

As he did Sunday at Watkins Glen, Larson immediately apologized and sought out Elliott the following week to clear the air. He expected this latest adversity to end quickly, but the playoffs begin in a week with the Cup title on the line and the two drivers have set up a personal rivalry within the team that could stretch into the next two-plus months.

Hendrick is unlikely to let it rot – remember, HMS actually has all four pilots in the 16-pilot playoff field – and the boss has long preached that ships usually sink from within. He’ll do his best this week to get Elliott comfortable before he gets to Daytona this weekend.

Whether that will help Larsson the rest of the season remains to be seen.

“In my position, you have to expect no breaks to cross my path,” Larson said. “I think and hope that everything will be fine, but we’ll see. I didn’t make his day, but I probably beat him. The next 11 weeks, 10 weeks into the playoffs, it’s not just me to worry about.

“I know for sure there can be times throughout the playoffs where I feel like we’re close a lot because we’re pretty even on the track and stuff like that. Yes, there may be moments. In my position, you have to accept it.’

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