Defeating Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen is improbable but not impossible

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and can anyone realistically topple Chase Elliott? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the Go Bowling at the Glen (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

How do you solve a problem like Chase Elliott?

It should be stated that Elliott isn’t impervious to losing at Watkins Glen. But in the least technical explanation possible, he’s very, very good.

In his two wins from 2018-19 — races utilizing completely different rules packages — Elliott turned in high single-race surplus passing values with what timing and scoring recorded as the fastest car. Considering what the 2.45-mile track is, compared to other road courses, his special sauce is no secret.

“It’s not a very technical track,” Chase Briscoe said this week. “It is very high-speed, so the car is more important. At other road courses, you can kind of beat the car up a little and it’ll still be OK, but you need that aero at the Glen.”

Car? Aero? Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports machine has that down pat, ranking first in both average median lap time and average best lap time on road courses this season, per Motorsports Analytics.

“There really isn’t a slow corner like we have at some other (road courses), so you have to have a car that is fast and that you can be aggressive with,” Briscoe said. “It’ll be hard to make up ground on some guys if you get behind.”

Elliott’s calculated aggression and tender brake use has been praised by his peers. If Watkins Glen is truly a driver’s track heavily influenced by car speed, the rest of the series is in deep trouble again this weekend, attempting to solve a difficult problem.

And while the problem isn’t unsolvable, the most straightforward solutions might not work. There isn’t much of a point for the majority of the remaining 36 cars to attempt beating Elliott by producing a better pace and utilizing a similar pit strategy, because it’s a plan unlikely in execution. Instead, an off-sequence strategy — and this would likely require some full-field cautions at advantageous points in the final stage — seems the better bet, albeit a long shot.

That long shot, though, is better than nothing.

Similar to how the majority of the field — Kyle Busch and crew chief Ben Beshore included — treated Kyle Larson’s speed with reverence at Pocono, pitting off sequence of him in an effort to come out ahead in the odd chance of a late caution and restart, the designs of Elliott and Alan Gustafson should be actively avoided today.

“At Watkins Glen, the biggest thing is pit strategy,” said Busch, who eked out a victory in the second leg of the Pocono doubleheader, a race heavily dictated by fuel mileage strategy. “Obviously, you’ve got to pick and choose when you’re going to pit and stick to your plan.”

Funnily enough, Busch’s car ranks second in average median lap in road course races this season, representing the closest match for pace to Elliott. His modus operandi for the day, though, is a workable pit strategy.

“There are a lot of factors in strategy that affect a road course race and (hopefully) we can execute like we have been and get another win,” Busch said.

In the crosshairs of his closest competitors, Elliott’s bid for a third consecutive Watkins Glen win will still require what we’ve come to expect of him: a fast car and efficient passing. However, a misplaced pit call, like the one Gustafson took the blame for this week from February’s road course race in Daytona, could spoil an otherwise banner day.

“It’s what makes it so tough,” Gustafson said. “That’s what makes it so much fun and that’s why it’s so great to win these races, because it’s tough to make all the calls right and (have) all the circumstances go your way, and at Daytona, we didn’t get it done. It wasn’t the right call for the circumstances … You just have to navigate.”

Watkins Glen offers few passing zones, setting up a field day for elite passers

Effectively, all passing on road courses is difficult, relegated to one or two key areas at each track and well executed by just a few. Watkins Glen is no exception. Even Elliott sees the difficulty in overtaking for position on the track where he earned his first career Cup Series victory.

“I think the most challenging part about Watkins Glen is passing,” Elliott said. “It’s a racetrack that has a lot of grip and you kind of get in a rhythm and there are not a lot of passing zones.

“A lot of the heavy braking zones are after some fast straightaways or the esses, which are really aero-dependent. If you have clean air, you can certainly get through that section faster than you would if you were directly behind somebody, and that leads to an opportunity in the bus stop, but it’s just hard to get close.”

Note that it’s “hard” and not “impossible.” Elliott’s adjusted pass efficiency in the 2019 race was 7.56 percentage points better than the statistical expectation based on his average running position and a field-wide slope, a monstrous single-race percentage compared to the norm that only yielded two additional spots. Clearly, those two spots were hard earned.

For the whole of 2021, Elliott ranks as the eighth-most efficient road course passer among drivers averaging top-30 running positions. Above him is a collection of reliable movers with varying road course reputations:

Martin Truex Jr.’s position atop the rankings should surprise no one — he ranked first in the same category on road courses in 2019 and 2020. But Ryan Preece? Ross Chastain? Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Their inclusion on this kind of list is revelatory for most, but their viability in producing a race result by way of efficient passing is quite real:

  • Preece secured a 15th-place finishing average — in a car averaging the 21st-best median lap time — on the Daytona road course, at COTA and at Sonoma, races in which he also managed positive surplus pass differentials in each, 19 positions better in total than his statistical expectation.
  • Three of Chastain’s high marks this season came at COTA (he finished fourth), Sonoma (seventh) and Road America (seventh), outings in which he secured positive surplus pass differentials a combined 55 spots better than his statistical expectation.
  • Stenhouse’s 12th-place finish at Road America didn’t bowl anyone over, but it was his best road course race of the season, thanks primarily to an adjusted pass differential of +28 on a day when his expectation was -4. Fortunately for him, Road America translates well to Watkins Glen in that it’s hardly a technical track, a facility catering to aggressors, a reputation the 33-year-old driver carries.

In terms of passing, car speed still matters more than driving skill, but these three in particular, in addition to the other drivers highlighted on the above chart, seem to have a knack for influencing their passing totals better than most. It’s enough influence to affect a result.

Given the lack of passing zones, today’s race could reward the good passers in a way no other track can.