Larson gained the lead from Martin Truex Jr. during green flag pit stops in the final stage Sunday, built a big lead and kept his hard-charging Hendrick Motorsports teammate at bay over the final laps to win at Watkins Glen International.
“I knew my car was good and the strategy worked out,” said Larson, who was constantly reminded by his crew that his lead was quickly shrinking over Elliott in the No. 9 Chevrolet. “We were able to maintain that gap for a while and eventually start to pull away. Good thing the nine wasn’t close enough. He was really, really fast. He’s the guy to judge off of. I was definitely worried about him all day. He was so fast.”
Elliott was seeking his eighth road course victory and third in a row at The Glen, which would have tied Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin for the Cup record at the historic road course in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes.
Elliott was relegated to the back of the field before the race when his No. 9 Chevrolet failed inspection twice and crew chief Alan Gustafson was ejected. But just as he did at Road America a month earlier when he won from 34th on the starting grid, Elliott made a gallant charge but couldn’t overcome Larson’s big lead and crossed the finish line 2.45 seconds behind.
“I just hate it. I made too many mistakes to win,” Elliott said. “It was too late in the race to recover from it. That’s what cost us.”
Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.
Larson also held off Elliott in overtime to win on the road course at Sonoma in June and leaves Watkins Glen tied with Denny Hamlin with 917 points for the series lead.
“It’s fun racing him,” Larson said after his series-leading fifth victory of the season. “I look forward to the next few weeks and even into the playoffs;. There’s still a lot of racing left. It’s going to be fun. I’m glad there’s a fun little points battle. I feel like in years past it’s kind of been a blowout.”
It was the first Cup race after a two-week break for the Tokyo Olympics and there was no practice or qualifying.
Larson and Truex were together at the front of the field with 20 laps to go in the 90-lap race around seven-turn, the 2.45-mile layout. Kyle Busch in third was nearly 10 seconds behind and just ahead of Elliott.
Larson had a lead of nearly three seconds on Truex as the laps began to wind down as Elliott continued to charge. The grandstands were sold out and cheers for Elliott grew as he continued his surge. He passed Truex for second at the top of the esses with eight laps to go and set his sights on his teammate just over five seconds in front with lapped traffic ahead.
Elliott’s surge fizzled over the final five laps and Larson negotiated a gaggle of four lapped cars, overcoming a mistake in the first turn, and cruised to the finish.
Elliott had surged hard in the first stage but flat-spotted his tires in turn 1 and dropped to 36th near the end of the second stage before rallying.
Truex, Christopher Bell, and Larson were in a three-car breakaway early on the 50-lap final stage. Christopher Bell challenged Truex for the lead with Larson on lap 48 but couldn’t make it stick and backed off.
Eight laps later, Larson took out Bell entering the first turn, a downhill 90-degree right-hander, dropping Bell to eighth as Elliott continued to make a strong comeback from last. Bell, whose No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team was hit with the same penalty as Elliott, rallied to finish seventh.
Brad Keselowski, who finished second three straight times at The Glen nearly a decade ago, is still looking for his first road course win and had perhaps his best shot at a breakthrough came when he landed the pole for the race. He led the first nine laps ahead of Team Penske teammate Joey Logano before his day began to unravel. He spun out on his own heading to the competition caution, flat-spotted all four tires and was forced to pit again because he was struggling with rear grip. Keselowski finished 35th, two laps down.
Six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan, partners with driver Denny Hamlin in 23XI Racing, was watching his driver from the pits. Wallace matched his number, finishing 23rd.
WGI president Michael Printup said before the race that the grandstands were sold out for the sixth time in seven years and camping sold out for the first time. NASCAR did not race at The Glen last year because of the pandemic.
The Cup series heads to the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next Sunday.