NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Go Bowling at The Glen

What happened?

Kyle Larson won the Go Bowling at The Glen on Sunday (Aug. 8) after holding off a hard-charging teammate and leading the final 26 laps of the race.

Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-five finishers. 

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Brad Keselowski jumped out to an early lead over Joey Logano and Larson. He held off the two challengers for 10 laps until spinning entering turn 6 due to supposed brake problems. The competition caution came out just moments after the incident.

Logano held the lead on the restart with under 10 laps to go in stage one. He held off Larson and Truex despite heavy pressure; eventually, the No. 19 pitted with two to go in the stage for track position, giving Logano clear sailing the rest of the way. The stage win was Logano’s fourth of the year. Elliott, who started at the rear with Christopher Bell due to multiple inspection failures, raced his way to eighth in stage one.

A number of drivers stayed out under caution, putting Truex, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chase Briscoe at the front. Briscoe took it three-wide into turn 1 while Truex prevailed with the lead from the outside lane.

On lap 25, James Davison was stopped on track to bring out the third caution. Just before the yellow, Ryan Blaney went for a spin in the bus stop before continuing.

Bell worked his way into second place on the next restart at lap 30, just behind Truex. On the next lap, Elliott pitted under green after flat-spotting his tires entering turn 1. He was outside the top 20 when the issue occurred.

The rest of stage two stayed green, as Truex defeated Bell for his fifth stage win of 2021. Elliott ran the quickest laps of the race despite finishing the stage outside the top 30.

Most of the leaders stayed out, except for Hamlin in eighth. The green flag for the final stage came at lap 44 of 90, with Truex holding court over Bell and Larson. The three-man battle at the front of the field became intense for a handful of laps before Bell spun in turn 1 as Larson went to his inside.

On lap 56, green flag stops began while Keselowski wrecked and collected Logano in turn 1.

Truex and Larson pitted shortly after that incident under green on the same lap, and Larson cycled out ahead of Truex after a great stop by his pit crew. While all this drama was unfolding, Hamlin and Elliott cycled to the front of the field. Elliott pitted on lap 61 and Hamlin came two laps later, as both had already moved back into the top 10 prior to the green flag cycle.

Larson took command of the race with 26 to go, holding a comfortable lead over Truex. Elliott was just over 10 seconds back after coming back onto the track, but he chopped it down to 9.5 seconds with 20 to go as he passed Kyle Busch for third. The lead shrank to under seven seconds with 15 laps left, and it was just under six seconds when Elliott passed Truex for second with nine to go.

Larson had a brief scare when he was stuck in lapped traffic with under five laps to go, as Elliott closed within three seconds. It wasn’t enough, though, as Elliott had to get past the same cars and Larson inched away for a 2.43-second margin of victory.

The win was Larson’s series-leading fifth of the season, 11th of his career and second on a road course (Sonoma Raceway 2021).

Who stood out?

Larson continues to show he’s capable of winning at any track. Coming into this season, four of Larson’s six career wins were at two-mile ovals (Michigan International Speedway, Auto Club Speedway). That’s all changed in 2021, as he has wins at two road courses, two 1.5-mile intermediates and one 1.33-mile track. It’s all part of Larson’s evolution in the Cup Series — he’s now a threat to win anytime, anywhere. The truly great drivers are able to do that — think Hamlin, Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch — and Larson now appears to be there.

The No. 5 now creeps closer to a regular season title with three races left before the playoffs. Those playoff points are stacking up and Larson should have an easy path through the early rounds.

Elliott delivered one of the best drives in recent memory and it still wasn’t enough. The odds were stacked against him before the race even began when the car failed inspection twice. Alan Gustafson was ejected, Elliott was forced to start at the rear and lost 10 points. Elliott raced his way to eighth in the first stage, then had to pit under green in stage two when he flat-spotted his tires running deep in the field. The third stage was one of his best runs on a road course, coming from over 15 seconds back and getting within three seconds over the course of the final run. It wasn’t a win, but Elliott proved it yet again: no one is better than him on these tracks.

Truex looked like his old self after an uncharacteristic summer stretch. I’ve been worried about the No. 19 for most of the late spring and early summer. They just haven’t had the speed that we saw early in the year when Truex won at Phoenix Raceway, Martinsville Speedway and Darlington Raceway. But after two weeks off, perhaps the No. 19 team has activated playoff mode. Truex was one of the fastest all race at Watkins Glen, even if he didn’t have anything for Larson or Elliott at the end. He picked up a key stage win, led a race-high 34 laps and scored the second-most points on the day.

Who fell flat?

Keselowski was a non-factor after starting on the pole, succumbing to brake issues that ruined his day. My concern for Truex is shifting over to Keselowski, and his lame-duck status at Team Penske doesn’t ease those worries. Keselowski was in the mix to win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but prior to that, he had just one top five in 10 races. That’s not what we’re used to seeing from the 2012 Cup champion. Watkins Glen was another rough outing as he spun from the lead early and suffered through brake troubles all afternoon. The No. 2 is running out of time to turn it around before Roger Penske hands the reins over to Austin Cindric.

Logano won a stage before fading and finishing back in 22nd. The finish was Logano’s worst since Talladega Superspeedway in April, so there isn’t much long-term worry for the No. 22. Still, Watkins Glen felt like a missed opportunity. He has three top fives at the track in his career, including a win in 2015. When Logano got out front and won the first stage, it looked like he could’ve gotten back to victory lane. Between pit strategy, radio communication problems and the unlucky moment where he was collected in Keselowski’s spin, it was a troubling afternoon for Logano.

Team Penske will be expected to run a lot better as an organization next week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the house the boss owns.

What did this race prove?

Hendrick Motorsports is unbeatable on road courses this season. I know, I know — Bell beat them at the Daytona International Speedway road course. In the four road courses since then, though, it’s been all HMS. Larson and Elliott have two wins apiece and they’ve finished 1-2 in three of those races. Elliott also led the most laps at the only road course race HMS lost this season. And, while William Byron and Alex Bowman haven’t been quite as quick on the road, they’re still frequently running near the front. I’m not expecting Hendrick’s road course dominance to stop in 2021 with just two of those races remaining.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: NASCAR must eliminate cautions for stage breaks at road courses. I can’t hammer this point home enough. Strategy is a huge part of what makes road course racing great. When crew chiefs know when cautions are coming, they’re able to plan ahead and more easily make decisions. There’s also the fact teams often willingly give up stage points — or even stage wins — just for better position in the next stage. On top of that, cautions destroy the flow of racing at road courses with how long the laps take under yellow.

It would just make sense for NASCAR to keep the races green and award stage points at the predetermined lap. That has to happen, whether it’s next week or next year.

Paint scheme of the race

Ross Chastain recently secured a new, long-term ride with Trackhouse Racing. As he wraps up his first and only full-time season with Chip Ganassi Racing, the team is bringing some heat to the track as the No. 42 McDonald’s MyRewards car looked sharp on the road course Sunday.

Better than last time?

Last year, there was no race held at Watkins Glen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Elliott led 80 of 90 laps in an overpowering performance. Even though one driver controlled the race out front, there were plenty of storylines and action deeper in the field. First, it was Kyle Busch and William Bryon colliding multiple times. Then, Busch and Bubba Wallace had a run-in. Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Blaney also had a disagreement after the race on pit road.

This year, the race didn’t have nearly the same domination. Seven drivers led laps, including five leading more than five circuits. Larson paced the field for the final long run, but watching Elliott weave through the entire field to get back up front as laps ticked down was intense. The battle for the lead earlier between Truex, Bell and Larson was also some of the better road course racing this year. The margin of victory was closer in 2019, but give me the 2021 race all day.

Playoff picture

The battle for the regular season championship is the tightest it’s been all season. Larson has finally erased the deficit and drawn even with Hamlin atop the standings, with Larson having the tiebreaker due to his five wins. Hamlin remains winless and still isn’t technically locked into the playoffs, as three new winners in the last three races — as unlikely as it is — could bump him out.

On the bubble, Tyler Reddick (+15) gained 10 points on his teammate Austin Dillon (-15). Kevin Harvick (+95) is still comfortable, barring a couple of new winners in these final three races. 

Chris Buescher (-135), Matt DiBenedetto (-147), Chastain (-148) and Stenhouse (-188) are the next closest drivers to the points bubble, meaning it’ll most likely take a win for them to qualify.

Here’s a look at the full standings with just three regular season races left (Indy road course, Michigan, Daytona).

What’s next?

The Cup Series heads to famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for its first foray on the road course after 27 years racing on the oval. This will be the sixth and final road course race of the regular season, with just the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL remaining in the playoffs. The Verizon 200 at the Brickyard is set for Sunday (Aug. 15) at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

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4 Comments
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Bill B

Overall it was a good race but maybe not a very memorable one. There have been a lot better at WG. Man, it’s too bad Keselowski didn’t win, he would have been able to do the best burnouts ever as it seemed his car was set up to spin out. Well, it’s taken all season but the guy with the most wins is now also the points leader (technically), the way it should be.
I also agree that the stages really neuter the road course races strategy-wise. Knowing when cautions are going to occur kind of destroys one of the aspects that make road course racing interesting. BTW, I love road courses but I think 5 in a season are plenty. God knows what kind of race the road course at Indy will produce next week.

Jeremy

Absolutely agree about stages killing strategy on road courses. NASCAR should seriously consider doing away with stages on the road courses to bring strategy back into the game. If they want to dole out points for running position at certain points in the race, fine, but don’t throw yellow and stop the racing action to do it.

Christopher

They should do that with every single race. Stage points are incentives, stage breaks are made-for-TV bs.

Race fan

Totally agree about stage breaks, as well as 3 plus lap cautions for stalled cars or minor contact. Minor incidents should have local cautions on road courses.
Didn’t the mid-race leader award give a bonus w/o having a caution?

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