Chase Elliott wins rain-shortened NASCAR Cup debut in Austin
By JIM VERTUNO
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Chase Elliott managed the slipping and sliding, the standing water and the poor visibility that made it hard for drivers to see just a few feet in front of them.
And when NASCAR's debut at the Circuit of the Americas ended early because of poor racing conditions in the rain, Elliott had earned not just his first victory of the season, but also historic ones for Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet.
Elliott's Texas Grand Prix victory after 54 of the expected 68 laps was win No. 800 for Chevrolet and No. 268 for Hendrick Motorsports, which tied Petty Enterprises for most victories.
"I never thought we'd win this many races," said team owner Rick Hendrick, whose team had also earned win Nos. 400, 500, 600 and 700 for Chevrolet. He called it "an honor" to tie Petty.
"I'm so proud for Chevrolet," Hendrick said. "I've never raced anything but Chevrolet."
When pressed on what wins stand out over the years, Hendrick said, "It takes every one of those wins to get to the number we got to now. There's just so many. All of them are special."
Sunday's race will be notable for ending defending Cup champion Elliott's winless drought, and for putting the drivers through a soggy and occasionally muddy mess before it was ended under the second red flag of the afternoon as the rain only got worse.
Elliott's teammate, Kyle Larson, and Team Penske's Joey Logano rounded out the top three.
"It's not the ideal way to win, but we'll take it," said Elliott, who said he also had several close calls in the tricky conditions. "If they say race, we're going to go. If they make the call to say its not doable, or not smart, that's what we'll do."
Elliott earned his sixth career road course victory, and has won five of the last six road races in the Cup Series. He has 12 Cup wins overall.
The race call was a disappointing finish to the series' first run at a track built for Formula One, and organizers will have to decide if they want to make the Austin track a regular stop.
The rain started on the opening lap. The trickiest section to drive was the long, high-speed straight as the drivers risked hydroplaning or not being able to see through the spray kicked up by the cars around them.
The worst crash came when Cole Custer, seeking a visible racing line, smashed into the back of Martin Truex Jr. - who had just hit Michael McDowell - and Custer's front end briefly burst into a fireball on lap 25. Both drivers were checked at the medical center an released.
"We don't have any business being out in the rain, period," said veteran driver Kevin Harvick. "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."
Larson shrugged off some of the concerns. He was in late position to challenge Elliott for the win before the race ended.
"There's nothing safe about being a race car driver," Larson said. "It was getting pretty crazy ... That's kind of what you have to expect from racing in the rain."
Tyler Reddick earned his first career Cup Series pole position and the first road course pole for Richard Childress Racing since Dale Earnhardt at Watkins Glen in 1996.
Reddick was just seven months old when Earnhardt led 54 laps of that race despite driving with a broken collarbone and sternum suffered in a crash two weeks earlier at Talladega. Earnhardt waved off his reserve driver at the first pit stop that day, but ultimately faded to a sixth-place finish.
Reddick finished ninth Sunday.
NASCAR put aside old rivalries between track operators and racing series to strike a one-year deal to race at COTA. Will more be in the future?
Despite Sunday's rain, the drivers seemed to like the course and its more challenging sections through its 20 turns and steep elevations. Marcus Smith, the head of Speedway Motorsports who brokered the deal with track President Bobby Epstein, has said the Austin circuit could become a multi-year stop on the NASCAR schedule.
NASCAR and track officials did not provide attendance figures, but COTA said all of its parking lots were full an hour before the race. Smith called the first race in Austin "phenomenal" and noted he has a renewal option in his contract.
"We are encouraged by the weekend," Smith said.
NASCAR heads to North Carolina for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway next Sunday before a return to road racing at Sonoma Raceway
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Updated May 24, 2021