The last time the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was at a road course, it was at Sonoma Raceway in California. In that race, we saw an aggressive pit strategy call that ultimately won the race. This weekend, the road course was Watkins Glen and, unlike Sonoma, was very intense and very entertaining, all leading up to a feel-good ending and arguably the best moment of the season so far.
The beating and banging started as soon as the green flag dropped when pole-sitter Denny Hamlin and second-place-starter Kyle Busch battled for the entire first two laps for the lead. Eventually, Busch overtook Hamlin while the 5th place car of Joey Logano shot into the sandpit in Turn 5. This was due to a broken oil cooler after contact with Kyle Larson. Logano came to pit road and then took the #22 to the garage for repairs without causing a caution. What the #22 team didn’t know was that NASCAR had placed Logano’s car under the damage vehicle policy, meaning if a car is taken to the garage for repairs after an incident, it is out of the race. Thus, Logano and team were forced to forfeit the race and finish the day last in P37.
Only one lap later (Lap 3) Aric Almirola spun after some contact with Ryan Blaney during close-quarter racing. This brought out the first caution of the day. On Lap 8, David Ragan in the #38 made contact with the #17 of Ricky Stenhouse Jr and both spun in the carousel. Luckily, traffic passed by and both drivers were able to continue on without triggering another caution.
A strategy play from the crew chiefs of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and others caused a handful of teams to come down pit road just before the end of Stage 1, essentially indicating “We don’t need stage points, we want the win” and committing to a 2-stop race. When Martin Truex Jr elected not to pit and stay in the inherited lead, he drove away with his seventh stage win of the season.
Stage 2 was caution-free and allowed for Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch to battle it out for the first half of the segment. With Elliott’s #9 nose mere inches from Busch’s #18 bumper, the two drivers went through corner after corner without any mistakes. Seven white-knuckled laps later, Elliott passed Busch for the stage win, his third consecutive win in the last 3 races.
The final caution of the day in Stage 3 changed the race and ultimately made Chase Elliott‘s day a lot easier. The yellow flag flew on Lap 52 for the #32 of Matt DiBenedetto who blew an engine in the Inner Loop (formerly known as the Bus Stop). Busch, Elliott, Hamlin, and others all came down pit road during the caution but only a few made it out again without major issues. Kyle Busch had a problem with the gas can, in which only a few gallons made it into the tank. Busch left pit road in first place but had to come back so his crew could properly fuel the car. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin‘s airgun hose got caught under the car and snapped as Hamlin peeled out of his pit stall. When the hose broke, it hit 1 crew member and ripped the actual gun out of the hand of another, causing both to lose control of the tires. Hamlin was given a penalty for removing equipment from the pit box and was forced to come back down pit road to serve the infraction.
Elliott also encountered problems when he pulled out of his stall just as a crew member was running in front, resulting in the front tire changer flipping over the hood and landing perfectly on the other side of the car while gesturing that he was safe. Elliott’s mistake was the only one that did not cause a secondary trip down pit road, thus making him the leader when the race went back green.
With 32 laps remaining, Elliott in the #9 took off and tried to distance himself from the field, which he did quite nicely and created a gap of 1.8 seconds between himself and Truex Jr, who was running second. However, with 25 laps to go, the lead began to shrink. And by 2 to go the gap was only 0.4 seconds. On the final lap, Elliott overdrove Turn 1 and knocked the car down a gear to avoid spinning out. At the same time, Truex slid the corner almost sideways and lost an equal amount of time. By the 5th turn of the final lap, Martin Truex Jr had run out of fuel and realization set in for Chase Elliott as he captured his first career win in the Cup series. The win marked the 250th victory of Hendrick Motorsports as an organization.
On the cool-down lap, Elliott ran out of fuel as well and could not perform a burn-out, nor could he even make it to victory lane. The #9 car sat on the back straightaway as teammates and fellow competitors drove by, giving him a thumbs up to congratulate him. No one seemed to realize Elliott was out of gas except for teammate and 7-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who gave the #9 a push back to the front stretch to celebrate; a move that had the entire crowd on their feet and cheering.
The entire NASCAR world erupted on social media when Elliott took the checkered flag. The fans have been waiting for his first win for 3 years and have had their hearts broken during each of his 8 runner-up finishes. For his first win to come at a track as challenging as Watkins Glen proves Elliott’s know-how and talent, especially as this weekend saw him out-race two former champions of the sport, Busch and Truex Jr. Chase and his father Bill Elliott (NASCAR Hall of Famer and past champion) shared the long-awaited, emotional win together.
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