The Top Five: Breaking down the Watkins Glen race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International…

1. The Amazing Chase

It’s just one win, and on a road course at that. So we probably shouldn’t view Chase Elliott’s first career victory on Sunday as some sort of watershed moment.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to think this changes everything.

Elliott has been living under a dark cloud — one created in his own mind — when it comes to his racing in the Cup Series. At times he has clearly felt inadequate and undeserving of even having his ride. That might sound crazy, but Elliott possesses a competitive mindset in which he knows what he is capable of — and feels he’s letting people down if he does not live up to it.

This bleeds through in everything he does, because it’s as if he doesn’t feel he’s even earned the right to act like he belongs until he proves he does. And in his mind, he should have proved it a long time ago.

Whatever any of Elliott’s critics have said about him? He already has thought those things about himself, so he’s more likely to agree than be offended. He believes driving for Hendrick Motorsports requires winning races and championships, and anything less is simply unacceptable.

So over these last few years, as wins have slipped away, Elliott hasn’t wanted to hear anyone’s words of consolation. Eight second-place finishes? Nice for some people, but not satisfying for him. He had to win.

On Sunday, though, there was a sense of real relief. He’s now a winner in the Cup Series. He gave Hendrick Motorsports its 250th victory. He is ready to take the torch as the face of the team in the future, ready to seize upon this confidence and win more.

He can and will — and must, in his mind.

“Definitely relief I would say would be one way to describe it,” he said. “I’ve left these races pretty down over the past couple years at times and had some great opportunities.

“I learned a lot about myself the past couple years. I’ve learned a lot racing in general. I felt like the end of last year I was probably (more) at the top of my game than I’ve ever been racing as a race car driver in general. … The past few weeks have been encouraging and I feel like we’ve been running more like we did last fall, which was really nice.

“No reason why we can’t do that more often.”

This really could be the type of situation where Elliott the high achiever takes those almost races and turns them into wins on a regular basis. He’s already elevated Hendrick beyond where its cars were typically running over the last couple years. Now that the team seems to be turning a corner as a whole? Well, it could just be the beginning for him.

Welcome to Chase Elliott’s world, everyone.

2. What if…

As great as Sunday turned out to be for NASCAR as a whole, let’s talk about what would have happened if things had gone sliiiiiightly differently.

Imagine for a moment if Elliott had blown Turn 1 on the final lap, allowing Truex to pass him (and not run out of gas, just for the sake of this scenario).

First of all, it would have been a masssive gut punch for a lot of NASCAR fans. A member of the Big Three would have won yet another race, and while snatching it from the driver who seems to have the largest support in the fan base at that.

Meanwhile, it would have been a tough blow for Elliott’s career overall. His reputation as a driver who was unable to close out races would have had a signature lowlight and it would have become that much harder to overcome those demons.

Honestly, it would have been uncomfortable to watch for both those on TV and in person.

Instead, Elliott not only got a win — but it was a resume-building one. He beat the best in the sport — passing Kyle Busch earlier in the race and then holding off Truex at the end — in a straight-up, non-fluky way.

How he did it is just as important as the fact he did it at all, in Elliott’s case.

“That’s just satisfying as a racer when you’re able to go and race with the guys who are dominating this deal right now — and actually be a legit contender and not back into one,” Elliott said. “That’s pretty cool.”

3. Road courses are back!

A ho-hum Sonoma race in June made me doubt my love of road courses for a moment there, but…phew! Watkins Glen brought it all back in a major way.

Damn, that was some good stuff! I’m not sure how anyone could watch that race and be bored or dissatisfied with their time investment in any way. Even when Busch was out front and building a lead in Stage 2, there was still entertaining and action-packed racing taking place.

As many have noted over these last few years, double-file restarts completely changed the quality of racing at road courses. These circuits put on a phenomenal show these days, maybe the best product NASCAR has to offer. Yes, consistently better than even short tracks at times.

One reason is they check all the boxes fans are concerned about. Fans are tired of hearing about aero (not much of a factor here) and inspection (35 of 37 cars passed on their first try) and they desire close racing (got it), lead changes (yep), passing (oh yeah) and a showcase for driver skill to come through (no doubt).

I’m not sure how the Roval will turn out this fall, but at least we get a shot to see one more Cup race in that style this season — and several more lower-series races. I wish there were even more road races on the schedule, but maybe someday.

By the way, that race was only 2 hours and 13 minutes — the shortest full-distance points race of the year. Do races need to be 3.5 hours to be enjoyable? Clearly not.

4. The remarkable Kyle Busch

It’s too bad so many fans can’t stomach Busch, because that seemingly stops them from being able to appreciate what he can do in a car every single week. I get much of it has been self-inflicted over the years with his attitude, but Busch might be the most purely talented NASCAR driver — ever.

Just look what he did during the final run on Sunday: After a fueling mishap, Busch restarted 31st and then drove all the way back to third. Third! He was passing the best of the best like it was nothing. That is insane!

Imagine if Busch was as well-liked as Elliott and people were going crazy over all his moves instead of hating on them. I honestly believe NASCAR would be a much different place in terms of popularity, because people would be tuning in for the Tiger-like dominance effect.

Alas…

5. Points picture

As always, the last item of the Top Five looks at the regular season points picture.

Elliott became this season’s eighth different winner, which means there are currently eight playoff spots available on points.

Those are currently held by Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman.

Honestly, there’s not much drama in the points right now — and with only Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis remaining, there might not be another new winner to shake it up.

The closest points battle is between Bowman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but they have more than an entire race’s worth of points between them (62!). And Paul Menard is 72 points behind Bowman, so he’s not close either.

Daniel Suarez, for all the gains he’s made lately, is still 89 points behind Bowman. He’ll have to win to make it.

If there were to be a new winner outside the top 16 in the last four regular season races, that would move the line up to Jimmie Johnson as the cutoff. The seven-time champ is currently 40 points ahead of Bowman, so he should be safe either way.

15 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Watkins Glen race”

  1. If only they’d put Cup at Road America as a real third road course…people would go nuts for that track and Cup cars. Great to see Chase finally get one though!

  2. 1) If Chase can win on a road course he should be able to win anywhere. His situation’s not like AJ’s. He has the equipment to win, whereas AJ doesn’t . So I do think this changes everything. I’m expecting back-to-back wins being Michigan is one of his best tracks. As for him beating himself up so much, I think we’ve seen a different guy this year. I don’t know if it’s the fact that the new Camaro has been so far off and HMS hasn’t been up to par so he’s been more grateful for a good finish. Or his sit down with JJ but I see a more accepting Chase Elliott.
    Hasn’t one of your fan questions been “Have you ever screamed at the TV”? I’ve yell ‘watch out’ quite a bit. Today though, for the last 34 laps I was yelling at lapped traffic, to no yellow flags, to even wishing Martin would spin out (yes, I almost feel bad about that ????????), to HOW MANY MORE LAPS!!!

    2) So thankful we don’t live in the “what if’s” because IF what you said had happened I probably would have needed a new TV and a prescription for anti-depressants. I can’t even fathom the ????.

    3) I voted Sonoma a good race even though it wasn’t because that’s how much I love road course racing.

    4) Kyle Busch ???? He is pretty dang amazing.

    5) I’m a very, very happy camper now that Chase is locked in to the field.

  3. Alas, poor shrub. He will never become a favorite because even when he’s trying to put on a nice face, his arrogance shows through as he cuts in on the show to offer fake feelings of congratulation….

  4. 1. It was good to finally see Chase live up to expectations. I think the success of guys like him, Blaney, and Bubba Wallace will help the sport emensely. Their personalities are not only genuine, but they race hard and remind me of stories people tell about the accessibility of drivers in the past.

    2. I would’ve felt awful for Chase and certainly would’ve been disappointed, as I don’t really care for Truex much anymore (not because he wins, but because he whines), but to me it wouldn’t have changed the quality of the race. I can’t stand Kyle Busch and it would’ve been a good race had he won. I know the majority of fans would’ve been heartbroken, but the race was just THAT good.

    3. Watkins Glen is pretty much always good. It definitely benefits from its high speeds. Sonoma was a strategy race this year, Fox didn’t do a great job airing it, but it usually benefits from having a bump and bang short track feel.

    4. I listened to the whole podcast with Dale Jr and Busch where Kyle explained that he wants to be the best at his job, and that’s awesome! But he exudes arrogance in every interview. I’m not holding his past against him, he just hasn’t changed all that much. Does he genuinely hate the media or being interviewed? Maybe he does. I completely understand that if that’s what it is. I’m sure he’s probably a really cool guy and I definitely believe he was genuine in his congratulations of Larson at Chicagoland and Chase yesterday, but then he turns around and gives these interviews where he’s just a jerk. It’s okay to want to win at all costs, but if you want respect you have to be gracious in defeat, too.

    5. Dave Burns reported yesterday that “Alex Bowman would be happy to see one of the big three win because it won’t move the cut line” but -and maybe I’m being picky because I know what he meant- at the time Elliot was leading, and I thought it was the dumbest statement. The cut line wouldn’t have moved and I don’t think it’s going to. There’s not really anyone outside of the top 16 that’s shown any real speed. Of the tracks remaining, if we’re going to see a new winner, it’ll be Almirola (Michigan) or Blaney (Bristol). Johnson or Keselowski, but neither have shown great speed over the last few weeks. Either way it won’t come from behind the cut line unless Suarez or someone decides to shake things up.

  5. I adore road course races, and Watkins Glen showcased how great they are!
    Chase, have really liked this kid. So happy he won his 1st race. Hopefully that got the monkey off his back. Give him the confidence he needs. He has talent, he has a great team/car…now hopefully he keeps winning.
    Kyle Busch – the hate…I mean hate he gets is crazy. I get that his attitude probably brought it on himself for some. But he has changed in this season. BUT BUT BUT – put your personal feelings aside for him, he has talent. A talent behind the wheel of a race car that can’t be denied. I respectfully submit if you can’t recognize that innate talent, then you’re not a NASCAR fan. Dislike him or hate him all you want, but you have to give him that.

  6. Oh and even though it wasn’t mentioned here – JJ pushing Chase towards Victory Lane and all the congrats Chase got from his pals and veteran drivers – LOVED IT!

  7. RE: Road Courses

    I am not convinced it is all road courses that are good, but The Glen is great. It is the high speeds and the turning left and right. As the drivers say, it is “a speedway of road courses.” Give us more road courses where the drivers are doing 150-170mph!

    RE: Points Picture

    There is still some excitement at the top — who is going to win the regular season championship and get the biggest load of playoff points? Busch or Harvick?

    RE: Shrub

    With Jimmie on the backside of his career, Kyle is the best pure talent in our sport. I am of the opinion what we are seeing now is him just beginning to peak. If the JGR equipment can keep up with his abilities, he has the ability to spank the field like this every year for the next five to seven years. He will go down as one of the greatest of all time.

    1. According to NASCAR, it would extend the track by a mile, and make caution laps four and a half minutes long.

  8. Kyle’s later fuel stop allowed him to run wide open to the end while most everyone else had to conserve fuel. That may explain why he was able to go from 31st to 3rd.

    1. I agree and he got beat by over 20 seconds. That doesn’t sound like the fastest car to me when both Elliott and Truex were conserving fuel until the last dozen laps!

  9. In all this I do think Kyle bush may be the best talent in NASCAR but let’s not forget Kyle Larson he could easily win next week at Michigan

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