Road course racing in the NASCAR Cup Series has traditionally been something left-field. Something thrown in to lightly salt the oval and short track heavy calendar.
Upon the welcome return to Watkins Glen this weekend, the series’ resident road course specialist is aiming for a three-peat, and to move a step closer to equaling a record, held by his new boss..,
The champion looking to make a mark
Chase Elliott’s first half-season as reigning NASCAR Cup champion has been strange.
Yes, he does not need to worry about securing a playoff spot for the #9 Hendrick Motorsports machine.
Yes, he’s scooped a reasonable haul of 12 top 10 finishes and picked up a couple of wins along the way, but Hendrick’s brightest star has dimmed slightly.
He hasn’t struggled, far from it, but the champion has been overshadowed in his new role as leader of the Hendrick pack.
New team-mate Kyle Larson has stolen most of the headlines and taken four wins, including three on the bounce.
During Larson’s stunning run, which included a crushing win in the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Elliott was bridesmaid on two occasions.
The #9 of Georgia’s latest NASCAR export tried valiantly to keep Larson honest but a DSQ for loose lug nuts at Nashville sort of summed up the flux everyone was in trying to chase Larson down.
Feeling good on road courses
Despite the relative troubles, one place Elliott has shone this season has been on road courses.
He is, after all the king of modern road course racing in the Cup Series.
In his short career, he has started 16 times on tracks that go right as well as left, and won seven times.
That’s a strike rate of 47% and his tally places him one behind Tony Stewart and two behind new boss Jeff Gordon on nine.
Victory in the sodden (and should have been stopped much earlier) race at Circuit of the Americas was followed by an Elliott-esque domination at Road America.
And as NASCAR makes a welcome return to Watkins Glen after skipping it last year due to the covid-19 pandemic, the champion is looking to equal history, at the venue it all started.
The Glen unleashes Elliott
By mid-2018, Elliott was now two and a bit seasons into a full-time ride in the best equipment on the grid.
But he could not break his win duck. The monkey on his back had grown so large it was beginning to beat him with the stick.
His record at The Glen, or at the other regular road course, Sonoma was nothing special.
Elliott emerged from a late race battle with then-champion Martin Truex Jr to take his maiden series victory, at the 99th attempt.
In 2019, he took the win at The Glen once again, and at the Charlotte ‘roval’, a new addition to the calendar.
The secrets of the road course ace
But despite the fact he can equal Gordon and Mark Martin as three-peaters in New York state, he is not taking anything for granted.
“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,” he said.
“I anticipate everybody else will be better than they were last time we were up there.
“We just try to make sure we match it ourselves to have another shot.
.“Every time you go to the track, it’s always going to be tough.”
But how has Elliott become NASCAR’s road course specialist?
He doesn’t really know himself.
It is not a skill he crafted when rising through the ranks, although he believes the very fabric of the #9 team has something to do with it.
When Gordon, a 93-time race winner and quadruple champion retired, Elliott was handed the iconic #24 Chevy.
A quick-sticker change to #9 later, the make-up of the squad is still very much the same.
“I really don’t feel like I do anything spectacularly special, more, or very different at those places,” he explained.
“But again, we’ve had a good package as a company.
“The #9 team now used to be the #24 team, and Jeff [Gordon] had a lot of successes on road courses.
“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.”
Road course success spreads
Elliott is certainly in the right place to be a road course specialist in the Cup Series.
Like most things recorded in a book in NASCAR stat-land , the team that holds the record for the most road course wins is Elliott’s Hendrick squad.
It has racked up 23 wins, with Gordon (now Rick Hendrick’s second-in-command) and Elliott accounting for 16 of them.
For the record, Jimmie Johnson, that other great Hendrick driver has just two road course wins.
In further good news for Elliott, next week’s race is also a road course, at Indianapolis – the Brickyard 400 not being run on the oval for the first time.
More than just road courses
It would certainly be disingenuous to call Elliott a “road course merchant,” who is only good on such circuits.
He has won at Talladega, Dover, Kansas and on the Charlotte roval.
His performances in the last two races of the 2020 were stunning, and proved his worth.
Needing a win the penultimate race at Martinsville to get through for a championship shot, Elliott delivered a perfect performance.
This geared him up to go to Phoenix a week later and claim a deserved, if certainly unlikely maiden Cup title.
In much the same manner that of Brad Keselowski on short tracks or Denny Hamlin at restrictor plate races, Elliott has carved himself a niche.
He is the go-to man on road courses.
With the 2021 calendar featuring a record total of seven, and NASCAR looking to keep the spice presented by road courses going forward, Elliott is in a good place.
It shouldn’t be too long before he eclipses Gordon’s tally of nine, and then the only question is, how high can he set the bar?