AUSTIN, Texas — If only more people had paid attention, maybe a solution could have been found before Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas.
Last October, drivers provided clues about the hazards of racing in the rain. Yes, the Xfinity race at the Charlotte Roval was in a downpour, but drivers mentioned visibility issues after that race. One driver noted that it was “absolutely incredible how much you cannot see.”
Yet, seven months later, similar comments were echoed at COTA the day before the race and after Sunday’s Cup race in the rain.
Kevin Harvick called racing in the rain Sunday “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.”
He was among those eliminated by crashes caused by drivers unable to see because of the rooster tail of water that cars sprayed. Unable to see, Cole Custer slammed into the back of Martin Truex Jr.s’ car and lifted it up.
NASCAR responded by sending Air Titans on to the track to remove some of the water on the surface during the ensuing red flag. Series officials also mandated single-file restarts the rest off the race.
“We should have stopped earlier when there was too much rain,” Kyle Busch said. “That was bad when we were wrecking every restart. We should have checked up and waited. The rain subsided and we got back out there and everything was fine. Now, you couldn’t see. The last five laps you couldn’t see nothing through (Turns) 8, 9, 10, 11, down the backstretch into (Turn) 12.”
NASCAR stopped the event after 54 of 68 laps. Chase Elliott was declared the winner.
Scott Miller, NASCAR vice president of competition, vowed that series officials will do a better job managing races in the rain.
The concern is that the sport had seven months to learn from the Xfinity race and much remain unchanged. Now, the sport has four of the next 10 Cup points races on road courses. Maybe weather won’t be a factor. Maybe it will.
Since last October’s Xfinity race at the Roval, six of the nine Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series road course races have been impacted by rain.
So, what to do about racing in the rain?
Miller was asked if Sunday’s race would stop NASCAR from racing in the rain.
“I don’t believe so,” he said. “I think we’ll take a good look at how to be better at it.”
So if NASCAR plans to continue to race in the rain, then what?
“I don’t know what it is about this Cup body, but they put so much more spray in the air than the Xfinity cars do,” Tyler Reddick told NBC Sports. “I don’t know what that answer is. I couldn’t see behind one car (Sunday) on the Cup side. I could run behind three cars in qualifying (Saturday) in the Xfinity car. You could do this in the Xfinity cars, no big deal it seemed like, but that (Sunday) was bad.”
Miller was asked if there’s something that can be added to the cars to reduce the amount of spray.
“We’ve actually talked a little bit about that since the race, looking at getting some super high-res video or something (to see) … where the spray is emanating from (on the cars), and see if there is anything we can look at or do that might cut the spray down,” he said. “You look at other series and there’s a lot of spray, too.
“I think where we differ a little bit on racing in the rain is we pride ourselves on super tight competition. Our cars are really close together, much closer together than most other series. I think that’s kind of one of the things that poses a little bit more problem for us with the spray.”
It was only a matter of time, but the question was when would Chase Elliott win this season after all three of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates had won a race.
The reigning series champion noted earlier this year in a restrained manner that there would be good days and bad days. It’s a change from how he dealt with close calls or disappointment early in his Cup career. After runner-up finishes, he’d sound as if he’d instead finished last, beating himself up for a move made or one not tried.
Such feelings could have drowned him after Daytona in February after two weeks of near-misses:
He tangled with friend Ryan Blaney battling for the win on the last lap of the Busch Clash on the Daytona road course. The contact allowed Kyle Busch, running third, to get by both and win. A few days later, Elliott took the lead on the final lap of the Daytona 500, but it came just after the caution came out and he had to settle for second to Michael McDowell. A week later on the Daytona road course again, a slow pit stop put Elliott back in traffic and he was forced off course on the restart. He went on to finish 21st.
Since that weekend, Hendrick Motorsports tallied two wins from Alex Bowman and one each from Kyle Larson and William Byron, who also had a stretch of 11 consecutive top 10s before the streak ended Sunday with an 11th-place finish at COTA.
Car owner Rick Hendrick said he talked to Elliott last week, delivering a message for his young champion to “keep your chin up.”
Although it has been noted often how Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — who combined to win 21 Cup races last year — were winless until Sunday, Elliott has sought to tune out such noise.
“Everyone is entitled to an opinion,” Elliott said. “That’s great. That’s what makes it exciting, right, to watch. Everybody can voice theirs, have something to say about it.
“At the end of the day, the only opinions that matter, that reflect our performance and what we do on track, is our team and what we believe internally. That’s how we’ve always approached our racing at the (No.) 9 camp. That’s how we’ll always do it. We’re just focused on the opinions and the people that matter to us, the people that can make a difference, make us either go fast on Sundays or not.”
His win marks the first time since 2014 that all four Hendrick teams have won at least a race. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson each had four wins that season and Kasey Kahne won once.
“If you can just be there, be in the mix, be capable of running up front, winning races,” Hendrick said, “that’s as good as it gets for an organization.”
Well, it could get better as soon as this weekend. Elliott’s win ties Hendrick Motorsports with Petty Enterprises for the most wins all-time in NASCAR at 268. Hendrick Motorsports could break the mark this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, located two miles from the team’s complex.
Elliott lost a chance to win that race last year when Byron spun to send the race into overtime as Elliott led. Elliott gave up the lead to pit. Eight cars stayed out. Elliott restarted 11th. He finished second to winner Brad Keselowski. Three nights later, Elliott won at Charlotte in a midweek race.
“We’d love to go there and have another great run, be able to fight for another win,” Elliott said.
Ross Chastain finished a career-best fourth. His previous best Cup finish had been seventh in this year’s Daytona 500. He had not had a top 10 since. Said Chastain: “The Skip Barber Racing School here at COTA taught me a ton in the last year at road racing and in the rain.”
Michael McDowell’s seventh-place finish marks his career-high fifth top 10 in a season. Despite the accomplishment, he lamented finishing second to Joey Logano at the end of stage 1. McDowell was in that position by being among the few drivers to have rain tires when the green flag waved. Said McDowell: “I wish I could have beat Joey for that stage.That stage point would have been nice, but he was just a little bit better than us. We got stage points and ran in the top 10. We passed a lot of cars, so it was a great day.”
Tyler Reddick’s ninth-place finish kept him in the 16th and final playoff spot. He has a 38-point lead on Matt DiBenedetto.
Here’s a look at the how many points 12th-16 in the playoff grid have (the top 11 spots in the playoff grid are held by race winners):
597 — Denny Hamlin (points leader)
428 — Kevin Harvick
366 — Austin Dillon
338 — Chris Buescher
334 — Tyler Reddick