Did You Notice? … Not every NASCAR Cup Series title contender is like Chase Elliott?
Elliott is seeking his third straight road course win this weekend at Watkins Glen International. He’s won two of the four road course races in Cup this year, both with “America” in their track name (Circuit of the Americas in Texas and Road America up in Wisconsin). His other finishes at this track type in 2021? Second at Sonoma Raceway and 21st at the Daytona International Speedway road course after leading 44 of 70 laps. If not for a late caution for rain, he’d be three-for-four.
It’s hard to argue anyone is in the same road course stratosphere as Elliott. But plenty of Cup title contenders are just a single step behind him, breaking through for occasional victories of their own. Martin Truex Jr. won at the Glen himself during his championship run back in 2017; he’s also earned three wins out in Sonoma. Kyle Larson outgunned Elliott in wine country this year, earning his first career victory on this track type.
Joe Gibbs Racing, besides Truex, has a road course winner in all four of its Cup cars. Christopher Bell won at Daytona this year while Denny Hamlin won the Glen in 2016 and has 11 career top-five finishes on this track type. And Kyle Busch? He’s won four times, paired with countless victories over in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series.
So who is on the weak side when it comes to road courses? It’s an important skill to master with a record seven on the 2021 Cup schedule, including the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL during the crucial Round of 12 in October. One bad run there in this tight-knit field and you’re out of contention, just like that.
Here’s who’s on the “needs improvement” list among the sport’s top contenders.
William Byron. Byron has shown some speed in qualifying, winning the pole at Road America, but hasn’t been able to close the deal. He’s 0-for-4 on top-10 finishes this year, running 31st or worse in three of those events. His best finish at the Cup level is only a sixth, part of a track record that includes zero wins on this track type in Xfinity and Trucks.
The lone saving grace here? Byron’s sixth came at the Charlotte ROVAL last fall, an important marker at the one track where a poor finish for him would decimate his title chances.
Brad Keselowski. The 2012 Cup champion makes no secret of his weakness on right-turn tracks. In a dozen years at the Cup level, he’s never won, posting just one top-10 finish in four races this year (a fifth at Daytona in February). Keselowski’s lone road course victory in NASCAR’s top three series was in 2013 at the Glen, moonlighting in the Xfinity Series for Team Penske.
Unfortunately, Keselowski’s known more for some hard crashes in testing, including one at Road Atlanta in 2011 that left him with a fractured left ankle. Five years later, a testing crash at the Glen left him shaken up over the speed drivers carry entering turn 1.
“There are only so many of those hits you’re going to take before someone gets killed,” Keselowski said to Bob Pockrass back then. “That’s the way it is. It’s not something I’m comfortable with, but I think as a sport there’s a lot of different ways to look at it. At the end of the day, I’m still standing here. Odds are that if 100 people take that hit, one or two are not going to be standing here anymore.”
Austin Dillon. Dillon has spent this Olympics break digesting Aric Almirola’s upset victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, knocking him out of the playoff grid (at least for now). He’s unlikely to break back through at the Glen. None of his 19 career victories at NASCAR’s top three levels have come at a road course and his track record in Cup is borderline atrocious. In 19 career starts, he has yet to register a top-10 result, never leading a single lap in nearly a decade at the sport’s top level.
How bad is it for Dillon? His three worst average finishes at any racetrack are all road courses: Charlotte ROVAL (27.0), Watkins Glen (27.8) and Daytona’s road course (34.0). It’s a weakness that’ll make the difference if teammate Tyler Reddick, not Dillon, squeaks into that final spot (Reddick’s already posted two top 10s this year, at COTA and Road America).
Those are the three that stand out. Some might say Alex Bowman deserves to be added as he’s also yet to win on this track type. But Bowman has two career top-five finishes on road courses, both at the Charlotte ROVAL, which minimizes the damage for him. And a five-for-seven top 10 track record at the newer additions to the schedule (Charlotte, COTA, Road America and Daytona road) provide reasons for optimism going forward.
Did You Notice? … Ross Chastain will be the second driver at Trackhouse Racing in 2022? Both sides made it official Wednesday (August 3), announcing Chastain will move to the No. 1 for next season to run the car currently driven by Kurt Busch.
It’s one of the least surprising moves during a wild Silly Season. Chastain has settled in after a rocky start in Cup, posting four top-10 finishes in the last seven races. The playoffs appear out of reach at this point but a top-20 points finish is a possibility, not a bad effort for a program that struggled even with former Cup champion Matt Kenseth at the helm last year.
Trackhouse owner Justin Marks and Chastain have known each other a long time. If you haven’t listened to the Frontstretch podcast, I encourage you to listen to his interview with Davey Segal last month. It’s by far my favorite one this year and Chastain goes in depth about their years-long relationship. It’s clear the duo have a connection outside of racing and he was always going to be on the shortlist.
Chastain and Daniel Suarez are a great fit for the younger race team with upside Marks wants to keep building. Why keep veteran Kurt Busch around as a one-year stopgap? Trackhouse showed they don’t need it after overachieving with Suarez most of 2021. It’s not like he’s buying into a second-rate race team that needs a major upgrade in equipment and personnel.
The move almost certainly sends Kurt Busch to 23XI Racing’s second team, barring any last-minute surprises. From there? As I discussed yesterday, Silly Season’s future will hinge on how many owners choose to sell.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Speaking of the Glen, don’t count out Suarez. He’s got two top-five finishes in three career starts and Trackhouse has nothing to lose at this point. It’s been luck, not lack of speed, that stunted the No. 99 team’s momentum in recent weeks. If any race team is going to do something weird to try and win the next four weeks? My eyes are on them.
- The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wraps up their regular season this weekend in the Glen. Grant Enfinger has stayed in the top 10 all season but won’t make it due to missing a race due to lack of sponsorship. I’m not a big fan of tweaking rules in season, but we need an asterisk if someone’s good enough to do that. How should Enfinger get punished for actions beyond his control? He wasn’t choosing to run a limited schedule like David Pearson in the 1970s. Circumstances took him out of a ride.
- As the COVID-19 Delta variant spreads across the country, NASCAR chose to reinstitute its mask policy Tuesday. Let’s hope it’s the last move they need to make as the numbers start turning back in the wrong direction. It’s been an unsettling week for sports as we’ve gone from the verge of full stadiums and happy faces to uncertainty over just how many fans will (or can) show up.