NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Echopark Texas Grand Prix at COTA

What happened?

Chase Elliott won the Echopark Texas Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas on Sunday (May 23) after heavy rain and poor track conditions halted the COTA race early with 14 laps remaining.  

Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Tyler Reddick was quickly overtaken by third-place starter Austin Cindric in the first corner, as the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion paced the field on the opening laps. Wet weather was on the way, so cars quickly ducked down to pit road for rain tires behind him. Cindric stayed out for five laps until finally pitting and completing the cycle as Martin Truex Jr. took over the lead.

The first caution of the day came on lap 7 when Daniel Suarez stalled on the track. There was a mixed bag of pit strategies during this caution, with Michael McDowell and Joey Logano staying out and taking over the top spots. Logano passed McDowell after the restart and controlled the race for the final five laps of stage one. On the last lap the first stage, Matt DiBenedetto locked up his brakes and hit William Byron, causing significant damage to both cars.

Logano held the lead on the stage two restart, but the caution flag quickly returned after a big crash involving Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney.

Due to the mist and rainy conditions, we weren’t really able to see what happened between the four drivers. Here’s FOX’s best guess, though.

Ross Chastain passed Kyle Busch for the top spot on the restart, but the green flag was short-lived. As the rain intensified, Truex hit McDowell, the hood of his No. 19 slid back to cover the windshield and Cole Custer rammed into Truex’s rear end. It was a violent incident thanks in large part to poor visibility, ending both drivers’ days on the spot.

NASCAR used the incident to throw the red flag, cleaning standing water off the track. Officials ordered all restarts to be single file the rest of the day (similar to the Bristol Dirt Race).

See also
Multi-Car Pileups Mar Rainy Stage 2 at COTA

Once racing resumed, Chastain and Logano pitted under yellow before the green flag waved with four laps left in stage two. Kyle Busch took the lead from Ryan Preece on that restart and held off Austin Cindric and Elliott for a stage two win, his second of the year.

Busch and Elliott stayed out for the final stage and decided to stretch it on fuel. Busch extended his lead to over five seconds following the restart with Elliott settling in fourth behind Larson and Chastain. The Nos. 18 and 9 pitted with 27 laps to go and both said they were two laps short of making it to the end on gas.

The rest of the field slowly trickled down pit road over the next few laps, meaning everyone appeared to be good to make it on fuel except Busch and Elliott. Busch’s team decided to have him save fuel. Elliott’s team went the other way, deciding to run as hard as they could and run away from the field, hoping for a caution. Elliott made up over six seconds and caught Busch for what would ultimately become the pass for the win.

Alex Bowman was the final driver to pit with 18 to go, giving the lead up to Elliott. Busch, who was passed by Larson for second, pitted with 16 to go for tires and fuel to ensure he would make it to the end. Elliott stretched his lead on Larson to over 12 seconds as the rain intensified and visibility dropped. The save of the race came with 15 to go when Kurt Busch somehow avoided Kyle Busch and Austin Dillion.

The caution came out right afterward due to track conditions and low visibility, causing a second red flag with 14 laps left. The race was called relatively quickly because radar showed stronger rain was on the way.

Elliott’s win was the 12th of his career, sixth on a road course and fifth in the last six road course races. It was also the 800th win for Chevrolet and 268th for Hendrick, tying Petty Enterprises for most all-time.

Who stood out?

Elliott regained his crown as road course king despite not being at his best. This wasn’t the typical dominant performance we’ve seen from the No. 9 in past wins. But he was in position all day, stayed out of trouble and picked up speed in the final stage. Crew chief Alan Gustafson made the right call to stay out as rain picked up at the perfect time.

Sunday’s victory was Elliott’s sixth of his career on a road course at age 25. That’s third all-time behind Jeff Gordon (nine) and Tony Stewart (seven). I know Cup races a lot more road courses these days and there’s still more to come this season. But even with all that considered, it’s still darn impressive to be mentioned among two of the all-time greats this early in Elliott’s career.

Logano continued his trend of performing on new racetracks. The No. 22 won the first stage before pit strategy shuffled him deeper in the field for stage two. He led 14 laps and clearly had a car capable of winning had the race gone back to green at the end. Logano has quietly been stellar on road courses, now finishing in the top 10 in five straight races.

With new tracks at Nashville Superspeedway, Road America and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course coming up this summer, Logano could be a name to watch. He won on Bristol Dirt and I wouldn’t be surprised if he picks up a few more victories before the season ends — especially at one of the five remaining road courses.

The happiest non-winner at COTA had to be Chastain. Sunday was the best run of his career from start to finish. He led four laps and was in the top 10 for most of the afternoon. No one was more aggressive entering braking zones than Chastain and he would’ve gone for it on a late restart. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver hasn’t had much road course success in his career before COTA, so it’s fair to wonder if the rain balanced things out. Luckily for Chastain, there will be plenty more opportunities on road courses and rain is always a threat, except maybe at Sonoma Raceway.

Who fell flat?

Another road course race, another time where Truex doesn’t get the finish he deserved. For years now, it seems like we’ve been touting Truex and Elliott as the best road racers in NASCAR. However, Truex has finished 35th, 12th, seventh, third and seventh in his last five road course starts (Elliott won four of those races). Truex is clearly still among the best and COTA was a unique circumstance with his wreck being due to visibility. But I’m ready to knock him down a peg in my rankings of the best road racers.

Harvick’s incredible run of 61 races without a DNF finally ended at COTA. In those 61 races, Harvick won 11 times and probably could’ve won even more if luck had fallen his way. The No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team isn’t in a position to be worried about missing the playoffs. Still, we’re now over halfway through the regular season and he’s still without a victory. Through 14 races last year, Harvick had three wins.

Kyle Busch and Ben Beshore had to be kicking themselves after pitting just before the race was called. Like Elliott, Busch was reportedly two laps short on fuel. The decision to pit with 16 to go made sense at the time, as it gave him fresh tires and ample time (we thought) to drive back through the pack. Instead, he was subjected to a 10th-place finish when it could’ve been third if he stayed out for another lap or two.

What did this race prove?

Racing in the rain has its limits. The Cup Series has never had a true race in the rain like Sunday’s. Last year’s Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL race had some wetness in the first stage before a dry rest of the day. Now that we’ve seen heavy rain races at COTA and the Xfinity ROVAL race last year, it’s time to reassess how much rain is too much to race in. Drivers seemed to agree that the conditions were too dangerous.

Racing in wet weather is a fun wrinkle to road course races. I think it can be valuable to do when the track is wet and the rain isn’t falling. But heavy precipitation combined with the long straightaways at COTA was a doomed idea from the start.

No, NASCAR didn’t call the race just because Elliott was winning. Non-Elliott fans will wear their tinfoil caps and cry conspiracy theory. That wasn’t what this decision was, though. Multiple drivers — including ones with a chance to win just behind Elliott — agreed with NASCAR’s move. The track was clearly unfit for race conditions.

Hendrick Motorsports’ historic season continues as it tied Petty Enterprises for most wins by an organization in NASCAR history. One week after placing its cars in the top four spots at Dover, HMS held the top two spots in the rain-shortened COTA race.

See also
Hendrick Motorsports Dominates Dover, Sweeps Top 4 Positions

Hendrick’s 268 wins are probably more impressive than Petty’s 268 because of the parity in the organization and overall competition. Jeff Gordon (93) and Jimmie Johnson (83) earned most of the victories, but Elliott (12), Terry Labonte (12), Darrell Waltrip (nine), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (nine) and Tim Richmond (nine) were all big contributors. Petty got 200 wins from Richard Petty in a time where there were significantly more races on the schedule and much fewer cars capable of winning. Now, the only question is when HMS breaks the record.

Paint scheme of the race

Harvick often runs some sweet one-off Busch schemes. This week, it was a one-off Mobil 1 scheme that caught my eye. The gold design with money all over the side gave me Jeff Gordon Pepsi Billion and Kurt Busch Sharpie Million vibes. Really slick with an old school feel, making it unfortunate to see the Ford all torn up.

Will we be back?

Sunday was NASCAR’s first trip to COTA. Instead of comparing this race to last year, let’s discuss whether or not the series should return to the Austin road course for a second year.

This debut race was tarnished by the weather. The rain was fun at times, but overall, it was too treacherous for most of the day. At times when the rain slowed down, the racing was really fun. There were some great battles and green flag passes for the lead, sometimes multiple times on the same lap. I would love to see COTA back on the schedule next year, hopefully with some sunshine in the forecast.

Playoff picture

Elliott joins his three Hendrick teammates in the playoffs. He also marks the 11th different winner this season, meaning only five playoff spots are up for grabs with 12 races left. Hamlin (+301) and Harvick (+132) remain extremely safe despite being winless.

On the bubble, the points battle is heating up for those final three spots. Dillon (+70) should be feeling pretty good — as long as a driver outside the top 16 doesn’t win. Chris Buescher (+42) and Tyler Reddick (+38) extended their cushions for the final two spots, but Matt DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chastain and Ryan Newman are all within 61 points of Reddick.

Here’s a look at the full standings following COTA.

What’s next?

The Cup Series heads home to North Carolina for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The longest race of the season in terms of mileage begins on Sunday (May 30) at 6 p.m. following the Indianapolis 500. As usual, the Coke 600 is the only four-stage race of the season, with each 100-lap stage providing points.

See also
Circuit of the Americas: May 21 - 23

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

21 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bill BB

What a cluster. I am all for running in rainy conditions. When there is a light rain, mist or just a wet track from rain but I don’t think it’s a good thing to run in persistent and steady rain. NASCAR needs to rethink the degree of wetness in which they can run the race.
I will say it was interesting to watch in a train wreck sort of way. Not sure what else can be said. I hope they return to the this track next year with better conditions.

sb

I applaud Nascar for making the right decision to call the race when visibility was zero. unfortunately, it took some horrendous crashes for them to realize it.

janice

idiots. i guess the wreck with cole and truex made nascar pay attention to the amount of water on the track.

racing is rain is fine, but that track surface had way too much rain on it. visibility was really compromised.

nascar is lucky no one got seriously injured.

Echo

Harvick said it best, most dangerous racing conditions he has ever been in. I kept watching the in car cameras and thinking these guys are running blind into the rooster tails.

JER

I wonder if someone else would have been in the lead besides “The Road Course Master” if the race would have been cut short and called. But all are happy in the world of NASCAR, we got the right result in the end.

Jo

Funny that most are complaining that the race was allowed to continue at all. NASCAR finally made the right call, after a day of chaos. I guess you would rather have seen more chaos rather than have a guy you hate win the race.

Jill P

You think they would have learned something from the Xfinity race at the Roval last year. A lot of wrecks and spins because of poor visibility. Drivers may say it’s fun, but they are lucky no one was seriously hurt.

Jo

As for “Elliott not being at his best,” I have to disagree. He felt his way around the course he was unfamiliar with, driving in the rain, which he said beforehand he did not feel prepared to do. As the race went on, Elliott found his groove and improved with each stage and by the end had pushed sailed away to a 13-second lead. In many ways, it was his most impressive road course win.

Echo

Ok, you’ve convinced yourself.

Jo

Actually, Chase has convinced me. He is far and away the best road course racer in NASCAR right now. He will probably break Jeff Gordon’s road course record win total.

And weren’t you one of those who accused me of hating Chase?

Bill B

I wonder how many more road course wins Jeff and Tony would have had if there had been 3 or more additional road courses every year when they were the dominate RC drivers. Jeff may have been able to make a run at Pearson’s 105.

Jo

True dat!

David Russell Edwards

Right call or not, like virtually everything they do it comes off looking tainted.
Perhaps by the next time, someone will do a little more work on wipers, fans, and such. And that little rain light was hardly the most visible thing to have used.

still, I think as a result, unless the networks force it there may be some time before it is tried again..

DoninAjax

When the first scene of the NA$CAR movie ended at the end of lap 16, laps 17 and 18 took 13 minutes and 25 seconds (for TWO caution laps) before the green to start lap 19 and the second scene began. That’s a lot of commercials.

Michael Latino

I’m sorry, Nascar cars are not made to race in the rain. And this wasn’t even rain, it was a flood. The race became a joke when the rain started. I turned it off as it wasn’t fun or a race to me. Nascar is waiting again for someone to be killed before they do anything positive. Nascar should add three letters to their name, NASCARWWE.

Sad Fan

NASCAR, if it isn’t already, will be a used as a case study in business schools in years to come on how to destroy a business and alienate your core audience.
Who is NASCAR’s core audience?? They don’t even know themselves. It’s a sad sight to see this once great thing devolve into a laughingstock.

Yesterday was a NASCAR test session to determine what constitutes ‘too much rain’. And they willingly used their drivers as test subjects. If they’d killed one? Oh well.

But… still millions and millions and millions to be made from WWE-style motor “racing” spectacles!

Next year: 5-6 stages, Inverted grids after some stages, fan votes for stage lengths and inverts, drivers flying off the top rope, etc. Gimmicks, gimmicks and more gimmicks.

And no more races on basic cable. We’ll be paying for NA$CAR streaming services. And more commercials.

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$… that’s all this is about.

Bill B

Basically turned into another Daytona/Talladega crap shoot race, didn’t it?

Jo

Not entirely. It takes skill to drive a road course, especially in the rain.

Bill B

Agreed, but for many it involved driving fast and not having any idea what’s in front of you, if that isn’t a crap shoot I don’t know what is. Sure a driver could slow down but if they were having problems but when they did they got slammed by the guy behind them that didn’t slow down. And I am sure Chase had more than a few instances where he was driving blind when he wasn’t leading. Just because he made it through when he couldn’t see doesn’t necessarily involve skill as much as luck. Crap shoot.

Jo

I agree that the conditions were treacherous, but it seemed that being up front was the safest place to be. I give Alan Gustafson a lot of credit for avoiding that last pit stop to keep Chase well in front of the field. He only needed one caution to stretch the fuel and in those conditions it was almost inevitable that they would get one.

And obviously, NASCAR made some bad decisions all throughout the race which took several top drivers out and put everyone’s safety at risk.

DoninAjax

It’s NASCE…National Association of Stock Car Entertainment. At least that’s what they want. They’re learning from the best – Brian’s hero Vince McMahon.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch