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.
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.