WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — In the moments after his frustrating loss Sunday to teammate Kyle Larson at Watkins Glen International, Chase Elliott repeatedly said he was looking ahead to Bristol.
Bristol? That’s next month, not next week.
Elliott referenced Bristol in his interview with NBC Sports’ Dave Burns after the race and said it a couple of times in the media center. Elliott caught himself after he was asked a question about Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock).
“I don’t know why I keep saying Bristol,” Elliott said. “We’re going to Daytona. My bad. For some reason I had Bristol on my mind. I don’t know why.”
Chalk it up to an honest mistake for a driver fuming over Larson’s actions on the final restart.
But that it was Bristol that came to mind for Elliott was interesting. It was there last year that Elliott helped Larson win that playoff race. Could Elliott’s reference to Bristol been a subtle reminder of how good a teammate he had been to Larson there last year? Or just that Bristol is the next short track and a potential place for payback?
In last year’s playoff race there, Elliott and Kevin Harvick made contact while racing for the lead with 35 laps left. Elliott had to pit for a flat tire. When he returned to the track, Elliott hit Harvick’s car and then stayed in front of Harvick. That allowed Larson to catch Harvick and pass him for the win.
“It kept me in the game,” Larson said that night of Elliott’s actions toward Harvick.
Since then, it’s easy for Elliott fans to wonder when their driver might be helped by Larson.
Sunday’s race marked the second time this season that Larson has won at the expense of Elliott.
At Auto Club Speedway in February, Larson dueled Joey Logano for the lead when Elliott came up on the outside. Larson, who later said he was unaware that Elliott was there, moved up the track, forcing Elliott into the wall. Larson went on to win. Elliott finished 26th.
Larson’s spotter, Tyler Monn, went on social media after the race and took responsibility, saying he made a late call on Elliott’s charge.
Even so, car owner Rick Hendrick met with all four teams afterward, and, according to Larson, “just kind of reiterated his expectations with us drivers, so it’s good to get those reminders every now and then.”
Then came Sunday. On the final restart with five laps to go, Elliott led. He chose the left side, giving Larson the right side of the front row. That put Larson on the inside lane going into Turn 1, a right-hand turn.
“I had the restart before, I kind of got put in a bad spot because he had the dominant position on me with the nose ahead,” Larson said of Elliott. “Every time I was in the right lane (Saturday) in Xfinity (a race he won), I was in the same spot, I would always get pinched into the curb. A lot of times I got passed by the time we got to Turn 2.
“I figured it was probably going to be the last restart of the weekend. I told myself if I had a nose ahead of him before we got to the braking zone, I was going to have to try my best to maintain that, not let him get a nose ahead of me, pinch my corner off, end my chance of winning.”
Larson locked his right front wheel entering the corner and moved Elliott up the track, taking the lead. Elliott lost ground and the chance for the win.
Afterward, Elliott spoke with Hendrick and Jeff Gordon on pit road, expressing his feelings.
Asked how he’ll handle the matter with Larson, Elliott said: “Just offer congratulations and get excited for next week.”
Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, suggested that more than that will take place between the drivers.
“What’s most important is that we have a good cohesive race team internally,” Andrews said.
The sooner the better. Or at least before Bristol.
Could the launch of Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 lead other teams to do something similar?
Team owner Justin Marks’ passion project was created, in part, to provide International drivers with the chance to run a Cup race. Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen gave Marks the star power he sought, taking the car on its maiden voyage this past weekend at Watkins Glen International.
Marks says that the Project 91 car will run potentially six to eight races next year. His plan would be for the team to run all the road courses — falling in line with the background of most international drivers — and possibly the Daytona 500 and/or Coca-Cola 600.
A key factor for this program is that no race this season, other than the Daytona 500, has had cars fail to qualify. Thirty-six spots in the starting lineup go to charter teams. The Project 91 car is not eligible for a charter because it does not run a full season.
Four spots are left each race for non-chartered cars, but 14 of the 25 races this season have had no such cars in the field, leaving those positions open. That means there’s no risk of missing a race for a team that puts together a limited ride.
Why wouldn’t another team want to do something like this?
If there are open spots, that means the car will be in field. A team could use crew members who are based in the shop to be on the road crew. That also gives them a better sense of what inspection is like, a chance to see what other teams do to their cars and maybe figure out ways to improve their own vehicles.
Another benefit is that by having an extra team car in races, that’s extra data the organization gets. With limited testing and practice, any track time is valuable with this new car. Trackhouse Racing, which won the first two road course events of the season, could benefit from what was learned from Raikkonen’s car at Watkins Glen.
The key is financing. A driver may have to bring significant funding. That could be the challenge, but if funding could be found for a few races, then it would make sense for a team to do so. It will be interesting to see if another team can put everything together for its version of Project 91.
With no new winner Sunday, Kurt Busch was locked into the playoffs. Busch’s status for the playoffs, though, remains uncertain. He announced last week that he would miss Watkins Glen and Daytona as he recovered from concussion-like symptoms after a crash in July at Pocono. Daytona will be the sixth race in a row that he’ll miss.
Busch’s status has 23XI Racing looking at “all options,” co-owner Denny Hamlin said last weekend at Watkins Glen.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed half the 2016 season because of concussion-like symptoms, understands the challenge of determining a timetable to recover from such an injury.
“There’s just no (timetable) when this is thing is going to come together for him,” Earnhardt said. “He could wake up tomorrow and be a big, giant step closer to 100% or it could take time. You just don’t know. One day you wake up and the wires are back together and it doesn’t make any sense.
“The only thing I would do is just caution everybody that there is no way to know, and he can’t and won’t come back until he’s 100%. It’s not a situation where he can come in and rough it out being 80 or 90%. The other thing, too, it’s important to make sure the public knows that a doctor is making this choice for him. Kurt’s not the one sitting there going, ‘I think I’m OK.’ It’s really going to be somebody else’s choice.”