Chase Elliott wins rain-filled Texas Grand Prix, first victory of 2021

It took three months for reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott to finally visit Victory Lane in 2021, but he finally got it done. He was the leader when Sunday’s EchoPark Texas Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas was stopped with fourteen laps to go due to heavy rain, and the increasing downpour led to it being declared official.

In the first qualifying session since the season-opening Daytona 500, Tyler Reddick won his first career pole ahead of Kyle Larson. Xfinity Series regular Austin Cindric, running his first Cup road race, impressed by qualifying third. Nine drivers were sent to the rear for various infractions: Aric Almirola, Anthony Alfredo, and Denny Hamlin for power steering changes, Chase Briscoe and Daniel Suárez for transmissions, Chris Buescher, James Davison, and Cody Ware for brakes, and Erik Jones for unapproved adjustments.

Stage #1

Rain fell upon the circuit throughout the weekend and persisted into Sunday, but the beginning of the day did not generate enough water to necessitate a “wet” start and instead resulted in “damp” conditions, which allowed teams to switch to slick tyres if they wished. During the pace laps, Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney were ordered to the back as they made adjustments in addition to changing tyres.

Reddick led the opening lap before pitting for wet tyres and Cindric inherited the spot; the reigning Xfinity champion and road course ace, who finished fifth in Saturday’s race, led four laps before following suit and surrendering the spot to Martin Truex Jr. Truex, Bubba Wallace, and the JTG Daugherty Racing team-mates Ryan Preece and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had started the race on wet tyres.

On lap seven, Suárez’s car stalled in turn twelve with a transmission issue to produce a caution. Michael McDowell, a former open-wheel driver, stayed out to assume the lead for the restart. Hamlin spun in turn nine but kept going.

McDowell led until fellow Ford driver Joey Logano passed him on lap ten. With two laps before the stage conclusion, Matt DiBenedetto locked his collided with William Byron, resulting in heavy front damage for the former and a flat right-rear tyre for the latter. Justin Haley exited the race with a steering issue.

Despite the contact, DiBenedetto was able to continue and secure the final stage points by finishing tenth. Logano took the stage win ahead of McDowell, Kurt Busch, Larson, Cindric, Buescher, Briscoe, Ross Chastain, and Xfinity winner Kyle Busch. As Cindric is running for Xfinity points, he did not receive stage points; he accomplished the same feat in Stage #1 of the Daytona 500, while Allmendinger at the Daytona Road Course and Harrison Burton at Talladega also did the same.

Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Stage #2

Some drivers opted to pit between stages while others stayed out. Meanwhile, Suárez returned to the track ten laps down.

Logano and McDowell led the field to green but Kurt Busch quickly jumped to second after the first two corners. Ryan Newman in the esses but proceeded, while others were not as lucky: Harvick slowed down and was slammed by Wallace as spray reduced visibility, while Christopher Bell hit Blaney from behind. The wreck marked Harvick’s first retirement since his clutch broke at the 2019 Bristol Night Race, but his first for a wreck since that year’s Talladega spring event.

The race resumed on lap 25 as Chastain took the lead from Logano. Shortly after, the obscured vision from the rain resulted in another major wreck as Cole Custer drove into Truex, sending the latter airbourne and driving Custer into the barrier and igniting his car. Both drivers were able to walk away as a red flag was waved.

During the delay, conversations sparked about rain racing; NASCAR has embraced the concept in recent decades with the use of rain tyres for wet road course races, while the sanctioning body also experimented with wet oval racing by holding a test session at Martinsville in April. However, the high amount of spray in Sunday’s race raised questions surrounding its viability for stock cars, which are far heavier and harder to manoeuvre on road courses than vehicles like sports cars. While NASCAR has windshield wipers and a flashing rear light for rain events, other disciplines add more safety features such as brake lights and a proper wiper system to improve visibility.

“The wiper works good, but the windshields are rectangle, they’re not square so your left half and your right half of your windshield are completely blurred up,” Bell said after being released from the medical centre. “The windshield wiper works good whenever it’s working, but then on the race track you have so much spray, you’re just racing blind.”

Others pointed out that racing in a downpour was disastrous regardless of series, especially as the rain mounted during the day. COTA also has longer straights than other NASCAR circuits and fewer run-off areas, resulting in higher speeds and less room for error.

“You just can’t see anything on that backstretch,” Custer commented. “I think the same thing happened to us at the same time, somebody was going slower and by the time you want to slow down, they’re in your front bumper so there’s no chance of you even missing it. It’s just so frustrating.”

“The only way to describe it is you can’t see anything,” Truex added. “You just mash the gas and going through the gears on the backstretch praying that nobody’s going to be there and all of a sudden, I see the tail light flash, and I was already in through him. It happens that fast when you’re going that fast […] my thought was that once I hit that guy, I need to try to keep going because I knew they were coming from behind, and literally next thing I know, again, I get drilled so I mean, there’s just nothing you can do in those situations.”

Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Harvick was especially critical after his own wreck, proclaiming rain racing as “the most unsafe thing I’ve ever done in a race car by a lot. You can’t see anything down the straightaways. These cars were not built to run in the rain and when you can’t see, my spotter said, ‘Check up, check up’ because he thought he saw two cars wrecking. I let off and the guy behind me hit me wide-open because he never saw me. It’s unbelievable that we’re out there doing what we’re doing because we’re in race cars that aren’t made to do this, and if you can’t see going down the straightaway, it’s absolutely not safe, not even close.

“We don’t have any business being out in the rain, period. All I can say is this is the worst decision that we’ve ever made in our sport that I’ve been a part of, and I’ve never felt more unsafe in my whole racing career, period.”

After a 23-minute delay to dry the track, the race returned to yellow-flag conditions. NASCAR also ordered for single-file restarts, a call that was previously made for the Bristol Dirt event in March due to vision issues.

Ryan Preece took the lead prior to the delay and paced the field to the lap 29 restart. Kyle Busch and Cindric passed Preece before the two initiated their own battle for the spot.

Cindric eventually fellw back as Busch drove off to his second stage victory of the year. Elliott, Reddick, Cindric, Corey LaJoie, Larson, Preece, Allmendinger, Briscoe, and Bowman followed. The fifth is LaJoie’s best career stage finish and the second time he earned stage points after getting one at the Daytona RC in 2020 (coincidentally also in Stage #2).

Stage #3

Busch opened the final stage on lap 36 and quickly built an advantage over Cindric, who faced stiff competition from the rest of the grid. Further back, Keselowski, Stenhouse, LaJoie, and James Davison suffered spins.

Cindric received a Hendrick Motorsports one-two punch when Elliott and Larson passed him on lap 39, and he started falling through the order as the rest of the top ten make overtakes. Reddick ran in the top five before spinning in turn eleven and dropping out of the top twenty.

Busch pitted under green on lap 41 and Larson received first place. Behind him, Chastain moved up to second. The stops mounted as the laps wound down, with Larson and the other leaders hitting pit road on lap 44 and surrendering the position to Chastain. Suárez received a penalty for pitting outside his box.

After staying out for three more laps, Chastain made his stop on lap 47 and the lead cycled to Bowman. With Bowman needing to pit, Elliott passed his Hendrick team-mate for first on lap 50 with Larson in tow. Kyle Tilley, an IMSA driver making his NASCAR début, suffered a speeding penalty on his stop.

With Elliott being short on fuel and the rain continuing to accumulate, the leader was left hoping for a caution in order to see the finish. Other drivers were also in the same boat, prompting Busch to pit from third on lap 52. A lap later, brother Kurt locked up his brakes while trying to pass between Kyle and Austin Dillon in turn one and shot into the gravel but avoided the wall.

Visibility concerns resulted in a caution with fifteen laps remaining, during which Cindric also spun. The red flag eventually fell and the rain showed no sign of stopping, prompting NASCAR to declare the race official and making Elliott the Cup Series’ first winner at COTA.

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

“Obviously I was on the good end of the call, so I’m okay with the race ending,” Elliott commented in his post-race press conference. “But actually, I think a lot of guys would say the standing water was getting pretty serious. It might have gotten better, might have not. Who knows? […]

“That’s not my call. If they say race, we’re going to go. If they make the call to say that it’s not doable or not smart, that’s what we’ll do, too.”

The win is Elliott’s sixth on a road course, which continues his strong run at such tracks as he has won five of his last six RC starts. It also gives owner Rick Hendrick his 268th Cup victory, tying him with the now-defunct Petty Enterprises (now Richard Petty Motorsports, but RPM is considered a different team from PE as the product of a merger) for the most by a team in Cup history, and the Chevrolet manufacturer its 800th at the top level. In celebration of the milestone, the door from Elliott’s car was auctioned off to benefit the Petty family’s Victory Junction charity.

“There’s a lot of guys, a lot more guys than me, that have contributed to that banner,” added Elliott. “Really proud and honoured to be able to hold that up today. Then to tie Richard Petty Motorsports obviously is a big one. The boss has been on us heavy about that record. He wants that record. So super glad that we could help with that today.

“As you mentioned, the tie, then auctioning the door from today to benefit Victory Junction Gang, obviously a well-known charity. What Richard has done there for as long as I can remember, I remember that charity as a kid. I know he’s changed a lot of lives. Hopefully we can help that cause as well. A really special piece of our car today, this is a big win. Looking forward to helping any way we can.”

Larson finished second for a Hendrick 1–2, while Chastain recorded his first Cup top five in fourth and Briscoe two spots behind for the rookie’s maiden top ten. Allmendinger took fifth for his first top-level top five since finishing third at the summer Daytona race in 2018, and the first such run for Kaulig Racing in the premier series.

McDowell notched his career-best fifth top ten of the year, while Byron’s top-ten finish streak ends at eleven straight races as he finished one spot short. Tilley’s first NASCAR race concluded in thirty-first.

Race results

Finish Start Number Driver Team Manufacturer Laps Status
1 8 9 Chase Elliott Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 54 Running
2 2 5 Kyle Larson Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 54 Running
3 6 22 Joey Logano Team Penske Ford 54 Running
4 20 42 Ross Chastain Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet 54 Running
5 7 16 A.J. Allmendinger Kaulig Racing Chevrolet 54 Running
6 27 14 Chase Briscoe Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 54 Running
7 23 34 Michael McDowell Front Row Motorsports Ford 54 Running
8 12 48 Alex Bowman Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 54 Running
9 1 8 Tyler Reddick Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 54 Running
10 4 18 Kyle Busch Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 54 Running
11 5 24 William Byron Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 54 Running
12 16 3 Austin Dillon Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 54 Running
13 28 17 Chris Buescher Roush Fenway Racing Ford 54 Running
14 19 11 Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 54 Running
15 36 37 Ryan Preece JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet 54 Running
16 29 43 Erik Jones Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet 54 Running
17 9 12 Ryan Blaney Team Penske Ford 54 Running
18 37 38 Anthony Alfredo Front Row Motorsports Ford 54 Running
19 24 2 Brad Keselowski Team Penske Ford 54 Running
20 25 7 Corey LaJoie Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 54 Running
21 33 96 Ty Dillon* Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota 54 Running
22 22 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet 54 Running
23 21 21 Matt DiBenedetto Wood Brothers Racing Ford 54 Running
24 34 6 Ryan Newman Roush Fenway Racing Ford 54 Running
25 3 33 Austin Cindric* Team Penske Ford 54 Running
26 26 10 Aric Almirola Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 54 Running
27 13 1 Kurt Busch Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet 54 Running
28 38 53 Garrett Smithley* Rick Ware Racing Ford 54 Running
29 32 15 James Davison Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet 54 Running
30 31 52 Josh Bilicki Rick Ware Racing Ford 54 Running
31 39 78 Kyle Tilley Live Fast Motorsports Ford 54 Running
32 35 51 Cody Ware* Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet 53 Running
33 15 99 Daniel Suárez Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet 46 Running
34 40 00 Quin Houff StarCom Racing Chevrolet 38 DVP
35 17 19 Martin Truex Jr. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 24 Accident
36 14 41 Cole Custer Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 24 Accident
37 11 4 Kevin Harvick Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 19 Accident
38 10 20 Christopher Bell Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 18 Accident
39 18 23 Bubba Wallace 23XI Racing Toyota 18 Accident
40 30 77 Justin Haley* Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 12 Steering
Italics – Competing for Rookie of the Year
* – Ineligible for Cup points

Source link