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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Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Roval

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The lineup for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs Round of 8 will be decided in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Entering the race, the final event in the Round of 12, Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman are below the cutline. Bowman will miss the race — and thus the cutoff — as he continues to battle concussion-like symptoms. Noah Gragson is scheduled to drive the No. 48 Chevrolet Sunday.

Cindric is tied with Chase Briscoe for the eighth playoff spot, but Briscoe would claim it on the tiebreaker. Byron is 11 points back, and Bell is 33. Hendrick Motorsports has appealed the penalty to Byron that dropped him below the cutline. That appeal is scheduled to be heard Thursday.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Any playoff driver who wins Sunday’s race and isn’t already qualified — Chase Elliott qualified for the Round of 8 by winning last week at Talladega Superspeedway — automatically advances to the Round of 8.

Drivers to watch Sunday at the Roval (2 p.m., ET, NBC), the final road-course race of the season:

FRONTRUNNERS

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 1st
  • Last three races: Won at Talladega, 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2019 and 2020

Elliott is the clear favorite to win a second championship. He won Sunday at Talladega to advance to the Round of 8 and can relax Sunday at Charlotte having punched his ticket. Relaxing isn’t likely, however, as Elliott will be among the favorites to win.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: 2nd at Talladega, 4th at Texas, 30th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2018.

Blaney continues along a path that could result in him winning the Cup championship without winning a race. He came within an eyelash of winning Sunday at Talladega but fell victim to Chase Elliott’s last-lap charge. He should be a threat Sunday at the Roval, where he has four straight top 10s.

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 18th at Talladega, 9th at Texas, 5th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2021

Larson’s last win — and his last top-four finish — came at Watkins Glen seven races ago. He is 18 points over the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 9th
  • Last three races: 9th at Talladega, 15th at Texas, 20th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Sunday will mark his first Cup race. Has three top threes in four Xfinity starts.

Cindric hasn’t won since the season-opening Daytona 500 and is one of five drivers still in the playoffs who own only one victory this year. His ninth-place run at Talladega ended a streak of four straight finishes of 12th or worse.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 8th at Talladega, 12th at Texas, 19th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Best finish in four starts is 13th

Suarez is 12 points above the cutline entering Sunday’s race. He has never led a lap at the Roval and has never finished in the top 10.

Chase Briscoe

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 10th at Talladega, 5th at Texas, 14th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Finished 22nd last year in his only Cup start

Briscoe is teetering on top of the cutline in search of a spot in the Round of 8. He hasn’t won since the fourth race of the year at Phoenix and had a poor performance at the Roval last year.

 

 

AJ Allmendinger to return to NASCAR Cup Series in 2023

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AJ Allmendinger is getting another shot at success in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Kaulig Racing announced Wednesday that Allmendinger, currently chasing the Xfinity Series championship, will drive full-time in Kaulig entries in the Cup Series next season.

Allmendinger raced in Cup from 2007 to 2018 but won only one time — at Watkins Glen International — across those years. He moved to the Xfinity Series part-time with Kaulig in 2019, winning on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. He won twice in 2020 and five times in 2021 and is a favorite to win the Xfinity championship this year. He has won four Xfinity races this season, including last Sunday at Talladega.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Allmendinger, 40, will drive Kaulig’s No. 16 car in Cup next year. Justin Haley will drive the team’s No. 31.

Chandler Smith will replace Allmendinger in the Xfinity Series next year.

“It’s crazy how the last five years of my life have gone,” Allmendinger said. “More than anything, I love this organization. I know the fans get tired of me talking about all the men and women of Kaulig Racing. This is not a race team. This is a huge family.

“There will be tough times and growing pains, for sure. But I love what they’re about, and they believe in me. I’ll be OK whether it’s good or bad.”

MORE: Chase Elliott atop NASCAR Power Rankings

Team owner Matt Kaulig said Allmendinger is “one of the best in the world at every type of track. He’s done so much for Kaulig Racing and our program. He’s a gigantic part of what we’re building.”

Team officials said Allmendinger has a multi-year contract.

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Charlotte Roval

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Sunday provides a final chance for drivers to advance to the Round of 8 and keep their Cup championship hopes alive.

Talladega winner Chase Elliott is the only driver who has advanced to the next round. That leaves seven spots available going into Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe holds the final transfer spot by a tiebreaker over Austin Cindric. At least for now.

William Byron is 11 points behind both drivers, but Hendrick Motorsports will appeal Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas on Thursday. Should Hendrick win and Byron get those points back, he would move into a transfer spot.

There’s just part of what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

Favorites to be No. 20

This season remains tied for the most different winners in series history at 19, but there are a few candidates who could become the 20th different winner this year on Sunday.

Among the favorites to do so:

Ryan Blaney, who came close to winning last week at Talladega, won the inaugural Cup race at the Roval in 2018.

Martin Truex Jr., who has four career Cup wins on road courses, still seeks his first victory of the season.

Michael McDowell, who is coming off a third-place finish at Talladega, has had a career-high 12 top-10 finishes this season, including top 10s in each of the last four road course events this year.

Will history repeat?

Last year, the four drivers eliminated after the Roval were Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and William Byron.

Harvick was eliminated in the first round this year, but Byron (-11 to the cutline) and Bell (-33) are in jeopardy of being eliminated in this round again. Bowman stated Tuesday that he will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms. He will be among the four eliminated from title contention.

Bowman missed last weekend’s race because of concussion-like symptoms suffered at Texas. A decision on if he’ll be able to race at the Roval will come later this week.

Will chaos continue?

Consider what some of the former Roval winners have endured on their way to the checkered flag:

In 2019, Chase Elliott drove into the Turn 1 wall on a restart while the leader. He recovered to win.

In 2020, Elliott overcame a loose wheel to win for the second year in a row.

In 2021, Kyle Larson won after his team changed batteries and put the alternator belt back on.

Could a similar fate be in store for this year’s winner? Or will they have a cleaner day?

Entry lists

Thirty-nine drivers are entered including IndyCar driver Conor Daly, former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 51 for Cody Ware, who stated that he would skip this event because of his ankle injury at Texas the footwork needed on a road course.

Charlotte Roval Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

Charlotte Roval Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Oct. 8

Forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 66 degrees. No chance of rain during the Xfinity race.

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 64 degrees. No chance of rain during the race.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.