Who … should you be talking about after the Echopark Texas Grand Prix?
More than a few people were surprised the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion went this deep into the year without a win. But no one was shocked that Chase Elliott picked up that first victory of 2021 Sunday (May 23) at Circuit of the Americas. The road-course ace collected his 12th career win, the 800th for Chevrolet and a record-tying 268th for Hendrick Motorsports.
Elliott had a little luck on his side when the Echopark Texas Grand Prix was shortened by rain; the No. 9 was a couple of laps short on fuel while some others had enough in the tank. But that’s part of racing, and NASCAR’s decision to end 14 laps early was really the only option at that point, with downpours only forecast to get heavier. While Elliott didn’t dominate, he and his team made the best of every situation.
Honorable Mention: COTA was an unknown for just about everyone, putting the entire field on even footing. That allowed another driver named Chase — Chase Briscoe — to capitalize in a big way. The rookie scored a career-best sixth-place finish, earning points in both stages while giving Stewart-Haas Racing its only top-25 result of the weekend.
Briscoe has struggled to kick off his freshman campaign. But SHR as a whole has been underwhelming, so it’s hard to pin the results on this driver alone. With the entire field having to learn a new car next year, Briscoe has plenty of time to grow as a driver.
What … is the buzz about?
Every time rain tires are mentioned, there’s an air of excitement among fans. Racing in the RAIN?! Heck yeah!
In practice, though, it’s a terrible idea. As was apparent on Sunday, there’s a level of wet that’s simply not safe to race in. It’s irresponsible and unfair to put out the green flag and expect drivers to run in next-to-zero visibility. They can’t see braking zones or other cars on track, causing chaos and increasing risk.
Those conditions led to the day’s most serious wreck. Cole Custer ran into a slowing Martin Truex Jr. so hard it nearly flipped the No. 19 over. Custer, whose car was on fire, nearly got hit by another car when he climbed out. The sophomore driver had no choice, unable to wait for the safety crew because of the blaze.
Well that was probably the sketchiest thing I’ve ever been apart of, could only see about a foot in front of you. Thankful to be ok and can’t thank everyone enough for reaching out. https://t.co/vq4Kbuz51d
— Cole Custer (@ColeCuster) May 23, 2021
It’s not much better for fans. Who wants to sit in the rain to watch a race they’ve paid a lot of money to see? Watching on TV? Good luck seeing anything through the rooster tails.
I’m not sure there’s a winner in all this mess. NASCAR looks foolish, even after admitting following the race it shouldn’t have let it get to that point. Teams have torn up cars, including half the fleet at SHR. Fans are either forced to sit in the rain or eat a ticket while TV viewers can’t actually see anything, just like the drivers. Does FOX Sports 1 retain an audience by hitting their time slot? Or did fans tune in to something else when they couldn’t see the race the network was covering?
Tyler Reddick summed it up best afterward, in my opinion: “I just hope we don’t do something this stupid ever again.”
So what’s happening Monday? A rain tire test … for ovals. (NASCAR says it’s just to restart sooner after a rainfall). Who watched what happened this weekend and said, “Let’s do more of this?”
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Pole sitter Reddick had strong words for NASCAR after the race, but he had a good day on track, running inside the top five for a portion of the event before settling for ninth. Reddick looks closer to a win with each passing week, and he’s currently 15th in driver points. If he and teammate Austin Dillon can both make the postseason field, it will be the first time since 2017 Richard Childress Racing has had two cars in the title hunt.
Last week’s winner Alex Bowman is quietly becoming a capable performer at all kinds of racetracks. He followed up his win at Dover International Speedway with an eighth-place result this week. He now has top-10 finishes this year at tracks ranging from one mile to a mile and a half, plus two at road courses. If Bowman can find consistency and improve on the short tracks in the playoffs, he could be a dark horse contender.
Point leader Denny Hamlin has been in the top five just about everywhere this year and has finished in the top 14 in all but one race. However, he was never a factor to win at COTA. Hamlin finished 14th and holds an enviable 7.7 average finish for the season.
When … was the moment of truth of the Echopark Texas Grand Prix?
Truth is, the outcome of the race would probably have been different had the rain not intensified to where it was unsafe to race. Elliott was short on fuel and others were not. NASCAR wasn’t wrong to call the race when it did; if anything, it should have been called earlier, or postponed altogether.
But two things should not happen because the race was rain-shortened.
One, fans shouldn’t judge the competition at COTA based on Sunday’s disaster. It could have been a good race; it should have been a good race. COTA is a difficult, technical track that tests drivers and equipment at every turn. Someone who’s not smooth with the transmission can easily destroy it as there are so many shifting zones and places where they must run in a low gear. They have to see and utilize every braking zone, managing their equipment to avoid mechanical failure. It’s the kind of race that tests the competition the way it should be tested.
NASCAR should give COTA another shot. There were enough moments this weekend that showed it could produce some fantastic racing if Mother Nature stays out of it.
Second, Elliott’s triumph isn’t somehow less worthy because it rained. It’s really hard to win at the Cup level; in more than 70 years, fewer than 200 drivers have done it. Sometimes, a driver gets lucky (it’s long been an adage that it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good). In this case, it wasn’t so much luck as solid strategy; Elliott put himself in position to capitalize on the wet weather.
A smart call from the pit box at the right time can be as valuable as having the fastest car on track. Saving a few miles’ worth of fuel (or racing hard, hoping for a caution when you know you have to stop) is a gamble that sometimes has a big payout. In this case, Elliott was leading at the end of the race, regardless of it going the advertised distance. A win is a win is a win.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
The next race on the Cup docket is the series’ longest, the Coca-Cola 600 at the teams’ home track, Charlotte Motor Speedway. Given the durability of the current racecars, Charlotte’s not quite the test of equipment it once was. But this crown jewel event is still a race every driver wants on his resume.
Jimmie Johnson’s retirement has rewritten the active driver stat sheet, meaning Truex and Kevin Harvick now share the active win lead at Charlotte with three apiece. Both would certainly like to improve on that after failing to finish at COTA after damage from on-track incidents left their cars on the hook well before the day was over.
While not quite as temperature-sensitive as it was years ago, Charlotte is still a track that changes quite a bit, and the day-to-night aspect of the 600 will put teams to the test. They’ll need to set up their cars anticipating the track changing or they’ll struggle to keep up. With 11 winners through 14 races, there are some as-yet winless drivers who’d like to make it an even dozen.
How … important are NASCAR practice and qualifying, really?
Practice and qualifying sessions both made rare appearances this weekend at COTA, owing to the brand-new to NASCAR track. The practice session was a good call for that precise reason, but is sporadic qualifying really the best way to handle a handful of races?
The more time goes on during the COVID-19 pandemic, the more questionable it becomes whether either is necessary, at least in its previous form. We’ve seen some drivers and teams adapt better than others, and that’s become a part of the game now.
The current lineup formula to set the field in its place is terrible and that needs to go. I wrote last year there’s a better way to figure out the starting grid (and I stand by the format I proposed then).
However, the easing of COVID-19 restrictions doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be a separate qualifying session on track. Why bother bringing it back at this point? There are other ways to bring value to fans at the track for the weekend while cutting major costs for teams.
It’s time for a different approach.