Elliott Chasing NASCAR’s Road Racing GOATs

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 8 2021

Chase Elliott climbs a hill in the Esses at The Glen during his 2019 victory there.(RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – History beckons Chase Elliott Sunday afternoon at Watkins Glen International, where this generation’s NASCAR road-racing ace is drawing comparisons to “Smoke” and “Sir Jeff.”  

Elliott, 25, has won six of the last seven Cup road-course races, including the most recent outing at Road America on the Fourth of July. Elliott’s seventh overall road-course win moved him into third place on NASCAR’s all-time list behind a pair of Hall of Famers.

Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart _ aka Smoke Johnson _ retired with eight road-course wins, including five (2002, ’04, ’05, ’07 and ’09) at WGI. Stewart exited Cup one win short of tying the series record for most road-course wins at a single track at six, the mark set by Hall of Famer Bobby Allison at Riverside (Calif.) Raceway.

Stewart’s eight overall road-course wins are one fewer than four-time series champ Sir Jeff Gordon’s nine victories on NASCAR’s twisties, including four at The Glen.

The reigning Cup Series champion, Elliott has scored seven of his 13 career Cup wins on road-courses _ Watkins Glen (2018, ‘19); Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL (2019, ‘20); Daytona International Speedway Road Course (2020); Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas (2021) and Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.

It’s an odd stat even Elliott, of Hendrick Motorsports, struggles to rationalize. “I wish I knew. I really don’t feel like I do anything spectacularly special, more, or very different at those places,” Elliott said during a ZOOM conference with national media on Thursday. “But again, we’ve had a good package as a company. The No. 9 team now used to be the No. 24 team, and Jeff had a lot of successes on road courses.

Chase Elliott is the heavy favorite to add to his road racing resume today at Watkins Glen. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

“Alan Gustafson (Chase’s crew chief) has a great understanding and a little history of road-racing, too, prior to NASCAR. So, I feel like we’ve focused on things that matter and we’ve developed a good package. But as I always say, things are evolving and changing as time goes and we’ve got to continue to push and be better, too. We know our competition is and we’ll give it our best shot and see where we stack up this weekend, just like always.”

Elliott has returned to New York’s scenic Finger Lakes Region for today’s 38th annual Go Bowling at The Glen as the two-time/reigning champion. Recall this race was moved to DIS in Florida last summer as New York State imposed health-related quarantine restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. This weekend also marks NASCAR’s return to on-track activity following a two-week hiatus to accommodate the Tokyo Olympics.

If Elliott three-peats today, he will break a tie with Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing among active drivers for most wins on WGI’s 2.45-mile/seven-turn natural terrain layout. Elliott also would become the third Cup driver to score three consecutive wins at The Glen, a record shared by Hall of Famers Mark Martin (1993, ’94, ‘95) during his tenure with Roush Fenway Racing and Gordon (1997, ’98, ‘99) at HMS.

It’s a lot to process, which Elliott did in his trademark pragmatic style.

“I’m just excited to be going back,” said Elliott, who celebrated his first Cup win with his Hall of Fame father, Bill, here in August 2018. “I’m looking forward to the challenge. Every time you go to the track, look, it’s always going to be tough. As I’ve said many times before, past success doesn’t equal future success and I don’t think that’s any different this weekend.”

Likewise, Gustafson dismissed the three-peat hype as a personal non sequitur.

Chase Elliott celebrates his July win at Road America. (File photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

“I try not to pay attention to any of the talk, positive or negative, and not let that influence me,” said Gustafson, who previously worked with Kyle Busch and Gordon. “I try to lead by example for my guys and what we’ve accomplished in the past is great and we’re super-proud of that. But it’s ultimately not going to really do much for us this weekend besides us knowing the lessons we’ve learned from racing there and being successful.

“We still have to do our jobs and we still have to be prepared and be ready and we still have to execute. We focus on those things and race it like it’s your last race and in doing the best you can and try to do that every week.”

So, what about the pressure associated with tying Stewart and moving within one road-course win of Gordon, Chase’s former HMS teammate?

“Same answer. There’s not (any pressure),” said Elliott, driver of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. “I think, for me, it’s a great honor to be even on the same page as Tony or Jeff. Whether we can ever get there or not, to even be in the same sentence, or like I said, on the same page, I think is very cool.

“For me, that’s not going to play a role in how I wake up Sunday morning or how I prepare for this weekend or how we go about our race. Again, if it’s not going to make us go faster, I really don’t care about it. And me, worrying about the stat sheet, is not going to do that. While I appreciate it and I think it’s a very cool achievement, it’s not at the forefront of my focus.”

Scheduled for 90-laps/220.5-miles, Sunday’s 23rd race of the season is booked to start shortly after 3 p.m. (EDT), with NBC Sports Network’s pre-race program airing at 2:30 p.m. The race also will be broadcast by MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Stage 1 will end on Lap 20 and Stage 2 on Lap 40, setting up a 50-lap sprint to the finish. The weather forecast is calling for hot, humid conditions and a 50 percent chance of rain. The track surface definitely will be “green,” as a steady, heavy rain swept the region shortly after the conclusion of Saturday’s Xfinity Series race won by Ty Gibbs. In the event of precipitation, Goodyear Racing has its white-lettered wet weather radials on standby. Each team will be issued five sets of treaded rubber.

Chase Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, worked with another road racing great a couple of years back. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett)

Elliott has made four Cup starts at WGI, highlighted by those back-to-back wins over Martin Truex Jr. of Joe Gibbs Racing. Elliott led a race-high 52 of 90 laps in 2018 en route to his emotional first Cup win and dominated in 2019 by leading a massive 80 of 90 laps (88.9 percent).

Elliott acknowledged that Truex is a solid road-racer, whose championship resume at The Glen includes one Cup win (2017) among six top-fives, nine top-10s and 35 laps-led in 14 career starts. In four road-course starts this season, Truex has one top-five and two top-10s, including a ninth-place run at Road America.

The last time we went (to WGI), two years ago, I felt like he was every bit as good as us, if not probably better,” Elliott said of Truex. “I think if he’d ever gotten the lead from me, I don’t feel like we would have been able to get him back. And typically, when a guy stays that close to you for that amount of time, they’re typically faster than you are. We know that. I knew that then. But we ran a good race and were able to hold him off. Martin is very good and always has been and I don’t expect this weekend to be any different.”

Truex said both of his runnerup results to Elliott at The Glen were, basically, the products of track position.

“The No. 9 ended up in front of us and we couldn’t pass him,” said Truex, driver of the No. 19 Reser’s Fine Foods Toyota Camry. “It’s a really, really fast place and it can be difficult to pass. His car was better in different spots than mine. From lap times, we were faster both years _ I could get to him, but he was fast in the right places where I couldn’t pass him. I’ll have to hopefully figure out how to get faster in a few key areas.”

Truex and the entire field will need to figure out those key areas without benefit of practice or qualifying laps. NASCAR’s revised business model for race weekends during this COVID-19 era has the Cup haulers entering the facility between 6 and 8 a.m. Sunday. In addition, the starting lineup has been set per Metric Qualifying. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski will start on pole in his No. 2 Ford Mustang, with teammate Joey Logano’s No. 22 Ford alongside in the front row.

Elliott, who will start 11th, commiserated with Truex, who will start ninth, on the fine art of passing at WGI. “I think the most challenging part about Watkins Glen is passing,” Elliott said. “It’s a racetrack that has a lot of grip and you kind of get in a rhythm and there are not a lot of passing zones. A lot of the heavy braking zones are after some fast straightaways or the Esses, which are really aero-dependent. If you have clean air, you can certainly get through that section faster than you would if you were directly behind somebody, and that leads to an opportunity in the Bus Stop, but it’s just hard to get close.

“I think passing, to me, is the first thing that comes to mind. Track position is huge. Positioning yourself well for that second-to-last run and last pit stop, and obviously the last run of the race.”

Elliott admitted that a touch of nostalgia will be tugging at him today at The Glen, original home to Formula One’s United States Grand Prix and scores of motorsports history.

“(WGI) will forever be a special place to me, whether we ever run good there again, or not,” Elliott said. “Your first of anything is special and especially that first Cup win for me. Watkins Glen will always hold a special spot.

“But to be honest, I’m not sure my life has really changed a lot since that first win. A lot of things have happened, obviously, since then. From a professional standpoint, I feel like I have been a better race car driver since then. I would like to think I’ve developed off the track too, in growing up; like anybody would as you progress through your 20s.

“Certainly, I think things have changed. But I’m not sure my life, my day-to-day life, is a ton different. I’m still surrounded by a good family and friends. At the end of the day, that’s what’s important. And I’m not sure that has changed because I think it’s a good thing.”

Elliott said his recognition as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver _ an honor previously “owned” by father “Awesome Bill” and Dale Earnhardt Jr. _ is a welcome addition to his status at reigning Cup champ.

“I feel the most important things are just the folks in your inner circle,” Elliott said. “While I’m appreciative of the fans and the things they’ve done for me and the opportunities they’ve given me and the support they’ve shown, that’s not me downgrading that or not appreciating it. But I put a lot of emphasis on the folks that directly surround me that have an impact on either my day-to-day life or our performance at the racetrack on the weekend.

“At the end of the day, if it’s not going to make us go faster or make my life at home better, then it really doesn’t deserve any attention. And that’s just kind of how I’ve viewed it and as I’ve grown and gone along this…journey. More and more I realize how true that is.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 8 2021
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