Long: Late to his own party, Chase Elliott enjoyed the ride

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — As the crowd gathered, Bill Elliott, who had been on the backside of Watkins Glen International’s 2.45-mile circuit, appeared.

Crew members, who had celebrated on pit road, soon followed.

Then came the drivers. Friends Ryan Blaney and Bubba Wallace walked over. So did Kyle Busch and Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron.

They all stood around waiting.

Finally, Chase Elliott arrived in Victory Lane.

It was a scene NASCAR and fans had awaited since Elliott’s Cup debut in March 2015, a day heralded with hope and hype for what Bill Elliott’s son could someday do for the sport.

MORE: Chase Elliott receives hero’s welcome in Dawsonville

Signed to a contact by Rick Hendrick at age 15, an Xfinity champion at 18 and the heir to Jeff Gordon’s car at 20, Elliott combined heartbreaking looks with a hot rodder’s drive.

Add that famous surname and how could he not be a superstar in the sport? All that remained was for him to win.

He couldn’t for 98 Cup races — nearly the length of three full seasons. Blaney won during that time. Kyle Larson won. Erik Jones won. Chris Buescher won. Austin Dillon won a Coca-Cola 600 and a Daytona 500.

Elliott fell behind his generational classmates. He came close to winning at times but those results often left him a frustrated or angry eyewitness to someone else’s joy.

Last year proved particularly painful for him.

Busch passed Elliott for the lead coming to the white flag at Dover last October to win. After Elliott parked his car on pit road, he sat there. He removed his helmet and placed his head in his hands. Jimmie Johnson approached but knew there was little to say that would console his teammate. Instead, Johnson helped shield Elliott from the crowd, giving the youngster a moment to vent with salty language.

Four weeks later, Elliott led less than three laps from the scheduled end at Martinsville before he was spun by Denny Hamlin. They engaged in a heated debate afterward that continued at Phoenix a few weeks later when Elliott roughed up Hamlin on the track in retaliation.

Late restarts cost Elliott wins at both Michigan races in 2016, as he piled up second-place finishes. He was a runner-up eight times in those first 98 races, matching what his father did before Bill won his first Cup race — which came on a road course.

Each weekend that Chase Elliott failed to win, the question loomed larger: When would the Hall of Famer’s son win in NASCAR’s premier series?

Elliott felt the pressure, burden and disappointment. Sunday morning, he turned to a football coach for guidance.

As Elliott passed the time before the mid-afternoon start, he pulled up a video of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart from last month’s SEC Media Day. Smart spoke with the calm conviction of a preacher when asked about pressure and expectations.

“I think potential is dormant ability,” said Smart, whose team lost the national championship game in overtime to Alabama in January. “And I think effectiveness is what we get out of our potential. And we talk to our players all of the time, the pressure is really a privilege.

You should feel privilege to have pressure to win games, to have expectations. We can’t run from those things. We know that. If pressure is a privilege, how you manage that and how you embrace that and our coaching staff getting the effectiveness of our players out is what’s important to us.”

Smart’s response resonated with the 22-year-old Elliott.

He watched the video again and again and again.

“He’s talking to kids who are my age, if not younger than me,” Elliott told NBC Sports. “I felt like he was kind of speaking to me. For some reason it really sat with me. Just felt that was something to keep in the back of my mind. It is a privilege to be in those positions, and you’ve got to make the most of them.”

Elliott understood his situation. While Busch clearly had the best car going into the race, Elliott was in that next group. He was closer to a win than he had been most of the season.

This was his chance for a breakthrough.

Elliott didn’t back down against Busch early in the race. When Busch fell out of contention for the win, Elliott dueled reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr., who sought his third consecutive road course victory.

Elliott assumed the lead on Lap 57 when Busch had to pit a second time under caution because of an issue with his team’s fueling left his tank about half empty.

Truex quickly moved to second on the restart but then laid back, saving fuel and waiting to pounce. Elliott also saved fuel. His lead over Truex dwindled, but it was too early for Truex to make a move. He stayed close enough to remain in Elliott’s rearview mirror.

At the behest of crew chief Cole Pearn, Truex pressured Elliott, hoping to run Elliott out of fuel if he couldn’t get around him.

Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson watched from the pit box while he and his team calculated fuel mileage.

“You don’t know how much fuel you’re saving,” said Gustafson, who celebrated his 43rd birthday Sunday. “We’re trying to do the best job we can calculating but you don’t know. It is a cat-and-mouse game. We hadn’t run that far into a run competing against (Truex) all race, so I didn’t know if his car was going to do better than ours or ours was going to do better than his.”

Gustafson said the team projected Elliott wound run out fuel on Lap 89.92 of the 90-lap race — essentially coming to the checkered flag.

Elliott didn’t have to time to ponder fuel because of a mistake on the final lap. He applied too much rear brake entering Turn 1. His car wheel-hopped and drifted wide into the right-hand corner.

“When that happens,” Elliott said of the wheel-hopping, “typically you’re either going to spin out or knock it out of gear and miss the corner. I tried to knock it out of gear, completely blew Turn 1”

Truex closed the gap.

All Truex needed was to get to Elliott’s bumper and in this summer of rock’em-sock’em finishes, Truex would continue the reign he, Busch and Kevin Harvick — the Big 3 — hold over the rest of the field.

Elliott rocketed through the esses and extended his lead on Truex. They both charged through the inner loop, their cars launching off the curbs. After exiting the carousel, Truex ran out of fuel but Elliott didn’t notice immediately.

“I was trying not to pay him much attention,” Elliott said. “I was expecting him to be three or four car (lengths) back coming out of the carousel.”

As Elliott approached the finish line and his first Cup checkered flag, spotter Eddie D’Hondt told him: “That’s one of many!”

Elliott screamed and then headed for his father, who had been spotting near the inner loop.

“I was going to go and absolutely burn it down to the ground in front of him,” Elliott said of the burnout he planned.

He couldn’t. The projection by Gustafson and the team’s engineers were incorrect. Elliott didn’t run out of gas just before the finish. He ran out of gas as he got to the inner loop after he won, going about a half lap beyond what he needed.

Elliott then found himself stranded on the track as fans cheered, his crew rejoiced and Hendrick Motorsports saw the end of a 37-race winless drought.

Johnson, who had a provided a confidant’s understanding to Elliott after that Dover despair, again knew how to help. He drove behind Elliott and pushed his teammate’s car the rest of the way so Elliott could begin his celebration.

“That’s something that I’ll never forget,” Elliott said. “His friendship has meant a lot to me and very appreciative of what he’s done in helping me be a better racer and a better person.”

After the celebration on the frontstretch, Elliott headed to Victory Lane. Instead of announcing his entrance by revving engine, his silent, out-of-gas car slipped in modestly in front of the large crowd that had been waiting.

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Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.

 

 

Winners and losers from the Clash at the Coliseum

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the non-points race that opened the NASCAR season:

WINNERS

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex limped through a frustrating 2022 season, going winless and contemplating writing “finish” to his driving career. But he decided late in the year to make another run, and that choice paid big dividends Sunday as he put Joe Gibbs Racing in victory lane.

Richard Childress Racing — RCR opened the season with power, putting Austin Dillon in second and newcomer Kyle Busch in third. The new teammates even enjoyed some late-race collaboration, Busch backing off a second-place battle to give Dillon a chance to make a run at eventual winner Truex.

Ryan Preece — Preece, given a shot in the offseason at a full-time ride in Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing, showed strength in his first outing, leading 43 laps before electrical issues dropped him to seventh.

Bubba Wallace — Wallace held the lead at the halfway point and totaled 40 laps in first but was drop-kicked by Austin Dillon late in the race and finished 22nd.

LOSERS

Chase Elliott — It was a lost weekend for the former Cup champion. Elliott was lapped during the race, failed to lead a lap and finished 21st.

Ty Gibbs — Suspension problems parked Gibbs after 81 laps, and he finished next-to-last a day after his car caught fire in practice.

Michael McDowell — McDowell was involved in several on-track incidents during the evening and finished 24th after running out of fuel, along with teammate Todd Gilliland.

Long: Drivers make their point clear on Clash at the Coliseum

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LOS ANGELES — So what to do with the Clash at the Coliseum?

The second edition of this exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum showcased beating, banging and 16 cautions in a 150-lap race won by Martin Truex Jr. on Sunday night.

A year remains on NASCAR’s three-year contract with the Coliseum — NASCAR holds the option for next year — and it seems all but certain Cup cars will be back next year.

With Auto Club Speedway President Dave Allen saying Saturday that his track will not host a NASCAR event in 2024 while being converted from a 2-mile speedway to a half-mile track, the Los Angeles area would be without a NASCAR race if the Clash did not return.

NASCAR is not likely to leave the nation’s No. 2 TV market without a race. 

A question this weekend was if the Clash would become a points race next year to replace the Auto Club Speedway date and allow NASCAR to have a new venue for the Clash.

“I think they should put (the Coliseum race) in the playoffs, personally. That would be perfect,” Denny Hamlin said straight faced after Sunday’s race before breaking into a smile to show he was speaking sarcastically.

Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano was emphatic in his response.

“No,” Logano said, shaking his head Sunday night. “We can’t do that.”

Why?

“You’re going to fit 40 cars out there? We can’t even make a caution lap without the pace car bumping the last-place car.”

Logano smiled as he spoke — then again he often smiles as he talks. He was not speaking sarcastically as Hamlin showed with his smile. Logano’s grin was part of a passionate defense.

“No. You can’t do that,” Logano continued of why a points race at the Coliseum is a bad idea. “That’d be dumb.”

Even in a celebratory mood after his first victory in NASCAR in more than a year, Truex was clear about his feelings of making the Clash a points race.

“Why would you screw it up,” he said, “and make it a points race?”

Just because drivers don’t like something doesn’t mean it won’t happen. 

But much would have to happen to make this event a points race.

Those familiar with the charter agreement between teams and NASCAR told NBC Sports that they weren’t sure that the language in the agreement would permit a points race at such a venue. With the charter system guaranteeing all 36 teams a spot in a race, it’s not feasible to run so many cars on this small track. Only 27 cars ran in Sunday’s Clash. That almost seemed too many.

Should there be a way to make this event a points race without all 36 running in the main event, there are other issues. 

The purse would have to significantly increase. NASCAR stated that the purse for Sunday’s Clash was $2.085 million. Last year’s championship race at Phoenix had a purse of $10.5 million. The purse for last year’s Cup race at Watkins Glen was $6.6 million. The purse for last year’s race at Nashville Superspeedway was $8.065 million.

If NASCAR made the Clash a points race, then the purse would be expected to fall in line with other points races. Of course, there still would be the logistics. 

But is it worth it to try to make an event something it doesn’t need to be?

While the attendance appeared to be a little less than the estimated 50,000 for last year’s race, it wasn’t enough of a drop to warrant abandoning this event. Is a points race at the Coliseum going to increase the attendance significantly? No.

Just bring this event back next year as is.

“I think it’s good for what it is,” Logano said. “It’s a non-points race. I think we need to go back to maybe only four cars (instead of five) transferring from the heat (races) … there’s just too many cars (on the track). I think that’s part of the issue as well.”

Then, to make sure he got his point across about if next year’s Coliseum race should be a points race, Logano said: “A points-paying race. No. I’ll be the first to raise my hand that’s a very bad idea.” 

But it’s possible 2024 could be the final year for this event at the Coliseum. 

If Auto Club Speedway’s conversion to a short track can be done in time to be on the 2025 schedule, then the Los Angeles region would have a short track and NASCAR could move the Clash to a new area to reach more fans.

That’s part of the goal this new dynamic NASCAR, which has moved Cup races to different venues in the last couple of years and will run its first street course race in July in Chicago. 

While NASCAR has made such changes, making the race at the Coliseum a points race serves no purpose. Just listen to the drivers.