It was supposed to be a full-fledged celebration for Hendrick Motorsports at Watkins Glen. Chase Elliott clinched this year's regular season title, earning a 15-point bonus to enter the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs at the top of the standings. His teammate and reigning Cup Series champion, Kyle Larson, wound up in victory lane to end a 22-race winless streak that dated back to Auto Club Speedway in February.
Instead, HMS will spend this week keeping their 1-2 punch from turning around and punching each other out.
Larson used up Elliott Sunday on the Glen's final restart, moving him up the track in a bid to seal both the lead and the victory. The No. 5 car scooted ahead while Elliott, who led a race-high 29 laps, was forced to settle for fourth.
It was a borderline dirty move, aggressive enough to leave a mild-mannered Elliott out of sorts. NASCAR's most popular driver had a terse conversation with owner Rick Hendrick before turning politically correct when speaking ton NBC Sports after the race.
"Congratulations," he said to reporters on Larson's victory. "He did a great job. Seriously, they deserve it."
But did anyone seriously believe him? Later on, Elliott mistakenly referenced Bristol Motor Speedway in his interview as if it were next week instead of the Daytona regular season finale. That's typically a short track where drivers look for payback over past incidents during the year. A look of anger sat plastered across his face in the post-race presser.
It's not the first time Elliott's been frustrated with his teammate this season, either. A nasty radio transmission from Auto Club in February followed Elliott fighting with Larson for the lead. Contact between the two left the No. 9 with damage while Larson went on to win that race, too.
So why did Larson get down and dirty with his teammate? Simple, the No. 5 team has struggled, falling behind in the critical playoff point bonuses you need to advance to the Championship 4. Given a rare opportunity to win during a difficult summer, one that included a four-race suspension for crew chief Cliff Daniels, Larson couldn't pass it up.
"Did what I had to do to win," Larson said. "Again, I'm not necessarily proud of it, especially with a teammate, but I feel like I had to execute that way."
Between them, Larson and Elliott own the last two Cup Series championships and 23 victories since the start of the 2020 season. It's their explosive talent that's propelled HMS back on top of the sport. But can arguably the two best in the series right now remain friends, sharing information and support while battling for supremacy within the same team?
It's a question Elliott quashed repeatedly during Larson's 10-win, 2021 romp to the championship in his first year running the No. 5 for HMS. But after rising back to the top this season, Elliott is hungry for title number two and anxious to break the tie between them.
HMS won't publicly admit there's a problem. As always, their focus is on settling the score internally while trying to keep everyone else in the building on the same page.
"We're going to focus on two really good race cars that were in control of that race at the end," claimed Hendrick Motorsports President Jeff Andrews. "A win, and a regular-season championship."
Feels like that's easier said than done with the playoffs and another championship battle close at hand.
Green: Kurt Busch. Busch wasn't even in the race this weekend, out for the rest of the regular season after a concussion suffered at Pocono Raceway last month. But no new NASCAR winner means Busch has locked in a playoff spot if he's healthy enough to return in time for Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend.
Yellow: Michael McDowell. McDowell impressed all weekend at The Glen, qualifying third and leading eight of the first 11 laps. A 10th top-10 finish of the season doubled his previous career high. Problem is that a sixth-place result on Sunday got him no closer to an elusive playoff bid. McDowell needs to win, and Daytona is well-positioned on the schedule for that: his only career Cup victory came in the 2021 Daytona 500.
Red: Kyle Busch. 32nd at Watkins Glen was Busch's ninth finish outside the top 10 in the past 10 races. Throughout the weekend, Busch seemed distracted, talking about a "big change coming" and claimed he's almost certain to sign a new contract for less money. A pending divorce from Joe Gibbs Racing appears likely, torpedoing any hopes for this year's championship. At this point, it's fair to wonder if he'll even advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.
Speeding Ticket: Austin Cindric. Cindric snagged an actual pit road speeding ticket in stage one at the Glen, costing him precious track position the rookie never made up. A driver known for his road course expertise continues to have the speed to win on this track type, but freshman mistakes keep him from getting over the hump.
Former Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen impressed in his NASCAR Cup Series debut. The 42-year-old drove up from his 27th starting spot to inside the top 10 with a new, third Trackhouse Racing Team No. 91 earmarked for international talent.
We'll never know how good Raikkonen could have ultimately finished, though. As Austin Dillon spun in front of him, contact with Loris Hezeman's No. 27 pushed Raikkonen hard left and straight into a tire barrier.
Unable to continue, the Finnish driver wound up 37th as post-race buzz circulated around what might have been. Will this run be enough to convince all parties involved he deserves another start with Trackhouse?
"It was good fun," Raikkonen said of his first NASCAR experience. "I felt more confidence all the time and had some good battles. It's a shame."