Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
With the excitement over Chase Elliott’s first win, another young driver looking to break through for the first time fell short but is making an excellent case for himself as a favorite at the Glen. After a fourth-place finish in his second Cup race at the track, Daniel Suarez has an average finish of 3.5. He also has one top five at the track in the XFINITY Series, making one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks into the rookie’s best. If he still hasn’t won by this time next season, look out. He’ll be hungry to prove himself and at a track where he knows he’s strong. Kind of like the driver who just won the race.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Is Watkins Glen the best track in NASCAR? While a couple others, like Martinsville and Bristol, might give it a run for its money, it’s hard to argue with some of the finishes the track has produced in recent years. This year was no exception, producing a battle that waged for a dozen laps or more for the race win. We have yet to see a race on Charlotte’s infield road course, and maybe it’ll be a thriller, but it’s hard to imagine it being better than this race.
While NASCAR did right to add a road course to the playoffs, this should be the track to host it. A crisp fall afternoon making for a faster, slicker track and the added pressure of the playoffs? Now that would be a show.
A couple of small observations to take home as well:
- Jimmie Johnson is a class act. He had a day that went from mediocre at best to a complete disappointment, but after most of the field had passed by Elliott’s stalled car on the cool-down lap, including both of Elliott’s other teammates, it was Johnson who pushed him back. It was a gesture that underscores the meaning of teammates and the changing of the guard in the sport.
- It was a great call by NASCAR not to throw the yellow for Austin Dillon’s slide with under seven laps to go. Dillon went for a wild ride, but was able to right the ship and continue. A caution would have been a shame at that point and kudos to NASCAR for waiting it out.
- I still want to see NASCAR run the boot.
Where… did Chase Elliott come from?
It’s been a long time since a Hendrick Motorsports driver dominated a race and closed the deal, but that’s exactly what Elliott did on Sunday. Starting third and taking the lead for the first time on lap 27, Elliott won stage two, briefly lost the lead to Kyle Busch after leading 18 laps. After Busch and polesitter Denny Hamlin swapped it a couple of times, Elliott took it back for good on lap 57, leading the field off pit road after the final caution and never looked back.
Once Elliott had the lead, he drove a nearly flawless 34 laps to the finish. For most of the closing laps, Elliott handled every turn masterfully, forcing Martin Truex Jr. to be perfect and he wasn’t. Elliott also slipped once, allowing Truex to close to his bumper. Elliott kept his cool and kept his lead, though Truex ran out of fuel in Turn 6 on the final lap, Elliott looked to have him beaten by that point. It’s been coming for a while, but the dominant performance was an eye-opener.
Like his Hall of Fame father, Bill Elliott, Chase knew all too well the feeling of coming close enough to taste victory with a rash of second-place runs, and like Bill, he takes his first win on a road course.
When… was the moment of truth?
Road course racing is exciting because it’s unpredictable and can come down to good strategy as well as good driving. While it can be argued it’s the one type of racing that’s actually changed by the current stage format, it’s up to teams to adjust accordingly, and we saw a few different strategies play put on the day. Pitting a few laps before the end of the first stage gave a temporary advantage. There was also variety in strategy in the second stage as many teams opted to make it a two-stop race and stayed on track at the caution, generally the same strategy you’d expect from a road-course race without the distraction of the stage cautions. But a lot of others did pit during the stage break, opting for fresh tires and counting on at least one well-timed caution in the final stage.
They got it, and despite a rash of problems on pit road, the final caution put teams within their fuel window, leaving them to race to the end. An issue with the fuel filler essentially took Kyle Busch out of the equation. He came back to finish third but was far out of contention for the win. At the end, it wasn’t really a strategy race, and it wasn’t really a fuel mileage race, either, though both came into play.
Why… didn’t recent road course king Martin Truex Jr. pull it off?
The easy answer is that Truex ran out of fuel in Turn 6 on the white-flag lap. But even before that, it came down to tiny mistakes, and Truex made more of those in the closing laps than Elliott did. If he’d taken the lead from Elliott before running out of gas, it would be easy to say mileage robbed him, but the truth is, he was vanquished already, barring a mistake by Elliott in the final turn. It wasn’t a fuel mileage race in the end.
Truex won the last two road-course races, but this time he was simply outraced in the closing laps. He was able to roll home second.
How… significant is Elliott’s win?
For Hendrick Motorsports, it’s a milestone. The win was the organization’s 250th overall, but that’s not really why. Watching Johnson push Elliott back around seemed like an irrevocable shift. That’s not to say that there won’t be more wins for No. 48, but it’s Elliott who has years and years ahead of him now. One thing that makes the sport exciting, even through all of its troubles is there’s always something new around the corner. A first-time win, a champion in twilight, three drivers schooling the field all season. It’s all a piece of something more.