BRISTOL, Tenn. — Kyle Larson won at Bristol Motor Speedway, which wasn't really a big surprise or even the most interesting thing that happened Saturday night during the first elimination race of this year's NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
The feud between reigning series champion Chase Elliott and 2014 title winner Kevin Harvick stole the show, especially when Harvick angrily told an energized crowd after the race: "I'm ready to freaking rip somebody's head off."
The fickle group struggled to pick a side before settling firmly behind Elliott, the winner of NASCAR's most popular driver award three years running.
Harvick took the lead from Elliott with 33 laps remaining, but the hard racing caused contact that cut a tire on the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet. After a quick tire change, Elliott exacted his revenge by deliberately slowing in front of Harvick to give teammate Larson a chance to catch Stewart-Haas Racing's Harvick.
Larson, the regular-season champion who was already into the second round of the playoffs on points, made the winning pass with four laps to go to earn his sixth points win of the year. Then Elliott parked in front of Harvick after an intentionally slow roll down pit road, the two drivers bounded out their windows, and they immediately began jawing at each other.
"Obviously, Harvick and Chase got together. Chase was upset. Kind of held him up," Larson said. "It got Harvick having to move around and use his tires up off the bottom. I started to get some dive-ins working off of (turn) two, got a big run, decided to pull the trigger, slide him, squeeze him a little bit, then he had me jacked up down the front stretch. It was wild."
Then came the confrontation on pit road.
Harvick had his helmet on at first, and Elliott wagged his finger in Harvick's face. There was brief shoving, Harvick slammed his helmet in anger, and both drivers blamed the other even after the verbal sparring moved inside Elliott's hauler for a private conversation.
"We were racing for the fricking win at Bristol, we're three wide in the middle, and he throws a temper tantrum like I was just trying to get the lead and race him hard," Harvick fumed. "Then he pulled up in front of me and just sits there until I lose the whole lead."
The crowd at that moment was very decidedly on Elliott's side.
"They can boo all they want, I don't care," Harvick said.
Elliott, meanwhile, indicated Harvick pushes people around on the track and said the pattern must stop.
"It's something he does all the time. He runs into your left side constantly at other tracks, and sometimes it does cut down your left side and other times it doesn't," said Elliott, who at 25 is 20 years younger than Harvick. "He did it to me in Darlington a few weeks ago because he was tired of racing with me, and whether he did it on purpose it doesn't matter.
"I don't care who he is or how long he's been doing it. I am going to stand up for myself and my team and go on down the road."
With that, the Bristol faithful were firmly Team Elliott.
But the fans loved Larson as well, and he was showered with adoration as he moved a step closer to his first NASCAR championship. Larson is the top seed and the favorite to win the Cup.
"I love this place. This is by far my favorite track. This is why," Larson told the crowd. "You guys are amazing, loud. We feel the energy while we're out there racing. Thanks, everyone, for spending your hard-earned money to come watch us putting on a show."
Elliott had led a race-high 175 laps but finished 25th at the 0.533-mile concrete oval. Harvick, winless in 2021 after last year's series-leading nine victories, was looking to snap a 36-race winless streak on the anniversary of his final win in 2020. He instead finished second.
Larson's trip to victory lane highlighted a banner night for Hendrick Motorsports. All four of its drivers advanced in the playoffs after Alex Bowman and William Byron were both in danger of elimination at Bristol, the third and final race of the first round as NASCAR cuts the playoff field from 16 drivers to 12.
Instead, Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Michael McDowell were ousted.
Bowman finished third to save his postseason, while Bowman was fifth as Hendrick's success meant Chevrolet had three cars in the top five. Three spots in the top six went to Ford with Harvick, then Team Penske teammates Ryan Blaney fourth and Brad Keselowski sixth.
Joe Gibbs Racing's Martin Truex Jr. in seventh had the highest finish for a Toyota driver.
Busch's elimination from the playoffs means Chip Ganassi will not win a championship during his 20 years as a team owner in NASCAR. He is selling his NASCAR team to TrackHouse Racing effective at the end of the season, and Busch — who will drive next year for 23XI Racing as the fledgling team adds a second car — was his final title chance.
Ganassi entered NASCAR in 2001, the year he nearly won a championship until an injury late in the schedule ended Sterling Marlin's season early. Ganassi still competes in several other series and has three drivers in contention for the IndyCar championship with two races left in the season for the open-wheel circuit.
The second round of the Cup Series playoffs begins Sept. 26 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Larson earned his first win of the year and Busch is the reigning race winner. After races at Talladega Superspeedway and on the ROVAL course at Charlotte Motor Speedway, four more drivers will be eliminated to trim the field to eight.