WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) — Chase Elliott put an emphatic end to his summer-long struggle, making a statement with a dominating win on the road course at Watkins Glen International.
A year after racing to his first career NASCAR Cup victory at The Glen, Elliott won a second time in the No. 9 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports on Sunday, besting Martin Truex Jr. just as he did a year ago. Elliott, who started from the pole, led 80 of 90 laps around the speedy 2.45-mile layout to become the first repeat winner in nearly a decade, since Marcos Ambrose in 2011-12.
“I think it’s huge,” Elliott said after his fifth career win. “We’ve had fast cars at times, but one thing or another ended up for a bad weekend. The way we did it was the biggest thing. That’s the kind of effort you have to put on often to compete with the guys in the field.”
Elliott had already qualified for the postseason with his win at Talladega in May, but after four straight top-fives he hadn’t had a top-10 finish since June at Pocono, a span of seven races. He also led 400 laps in the opening 13 races but had led only nine laps since until Sunday.
It was a two-car race for more than half the 220.5- mile distance and the entire final 40 laps.
Truex began to exert some pressure after sitting behind Elliott for more than 10 laps in the final segment. Elliott held his ground until Truex’s No 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota closed with six laps to go, waiting to pounce on a mistake that never came.
“I tried to do all I could. Chase did an excellent job just not making mistakes,” Truex said. “He hit his marks. His car was really fast in the key areas that you need to be. I just couldn’t get a run on him.
“Really, it was all about restarts and track position,” Truex said. “If I could have just got by him on that last one we could have set sail.”
With two laps left, Truex still couldn’t get close enough to make a move as Elliott drove flawlessly, winning by 0.454 seconds.
Denny Hamlin was third, Erik Jones fourth for Gibbs and Ryan Blaney fifth in his No. 22 Penske Racing Ford after starting from the rear of the field. Penske Racing’s Joey Logano was never a factor and finished 23rd, dropping to second in points, 13 behind Kyle Busch.
Seven-time champion Jimmy Johnson finished 19th but still made up ground in the race for the final playoff spot with new crew chief Cliff Daniels calling the shots.
Truex was chasing a sweep of the two traditional road races on the schedule. He won at Sonoma in June for the second straight time and has five straight top-two finishes on road courses.
Elliott won the first two stages, dominating the first, and Truex moved into contention about a third of the way through the race.
Truex began to challenge Elliott for the lead entering the first turn on Lap 55, moving briefly inside on the 90-degree, downhill right-hander but backed off to wait for another shot. They were alone at the front of the field, 12 seconds ahead when Elliott dived to pit road on Lap 60 for his final stop. Truex followed suit the next time around and was back behind Elliott when he got back on track but a little bit farther behind.
Truex stayed back but like last year began to close the gap with 20 laps left. Elliott, who overcame some mistakes in the closing laps a year ago that nearly opened the door for Truex, maintained a steady lead of just a few car-lengths for almost the entire stage, the two 5 seconds ahead of Hamlin in third.
The race was stopped when Johnson, desperate for a good finish, spun out coming out of the carousel turn, a sweeping right-hander, and seconds later Bubba Wallace spun Kyle Busch, who was running 10th on Lap 62. Busch and Wallace had banged each other while racing down the front straightaway before Wallace had the last tap, sending Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota around entering the first turn. Busch, who started third, finished 11th, right behind brother Kurt.
Elliott and Truex were back in front for the restart on Lap 66 and Truex challenged right off the green flag, the two exchanging bumps speeding up through the esses as Elliott never relinquished the lead despite damage to his Chevy.
“I think the left rear damage was the biggest concern,” Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “It was pretty significant. There’s nothing you can do. There’s no reason to panic. We’d done the best job we could. I knew it was up to Chase. Chase was going to have to run a perfect race and he did.”
More things to know about Watkins Glen:
Johnson has never failed to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs since they were instituted 15 years ago. He entered Sunday’s race 12 points behind Ryan Newman, who was 16th and tied with Clint Bowyer for the final playoff spot. Johnson moved into a tie with Newman for 16th with 544 points, 12 behind Bowyer and 23 ahead of Daniel Suarez.
Jones continued his summer hot streak. He was runner-up in the No. 20 Toyota to Hamlin at Pocono and had finished third in each of the previous two races, at Kentucky and New Hampshire. Jones has scored nine of his 12 top-10 finishes since early May.
There was a lot of bumping and banging, and Kyle Busch was in on a lot of it. Busch started third and spun out on the first turn of the race trying to pass 24-year-old William Byron, in only his second year in the series. Later in the opening stage, Byron, who started on the front row, spun out into the grassy area in the inner loop and shot across the grass after a tap in the back from Busch. With a little encouragement from crew chief Chad Knaus, after Busch brake-checked Byron on the stage’s cooldown lap, Byron slammed Busch’s back end and got the worst of it with damage to his front end. He finished 21st but mission accomplished.
“If you let guys push you around, you let them know that you’re not going to let that happen,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I think he got the worst end of the deal. Sometimes in the heat of the battle you want to do things, and if you thought about it a little bit more maybe you’d just settle down and go finish the race. I didn’t know Chad told him to, but if I’d had a radio I’d probably tell him the same thing.
“Chad has taught William a lot about racing. You have to stand your ground in this sport. If you let people push you around, they’re going to push you around. People don’t cut him a little slack. He had a really good chance for a good finish.”
At Brooklyn, Michigan, on Sunday, Aug. 11. Kevin Harvick is the defending race winner.