Four years after Chase Elliott captured his inaugural NASCAR Cup victory at Watkins Glen International, the Georgia native recorded his first regular-season championship at the 2.45-mile road course, but Sunday was a bittersweet day for the 26-year-old driver.
Despite starting on the pole, leading four times for 29 of the 90 laps and claiming the regular season title at the end of Stage 1, Elliott lost his chance at victory on a restart with five laps remaining. With Elliott leading and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson beside him in second, the field charged down the hill and into Turn 1. Elliott’s and Larson’s Chevrolets bumped. Larson jumped into the lead and Elliott dropped back, falling to fifth before rebounding to secure a fourth-place finish.
It was the second time this year a collision between Larson and Elliott in the race’s closing stages has cost Elliott the victory and given the win to his teammate. The other event was the season’s second race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. That day Elliott finished 26th.
Elliott’s comments about Sunday’s incident were short and carried a tartness.
When asked if people should view the California and Watkins Glen incidents separately or together, Elliott replied, “It doesn’t matter. … There is nothing I can do about today. It doesn’t matter, does it?”
Larson said he did what he had to do to snare his second victory this season and obtain the bonus points he felt he needed headed into the playoffs.
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Hendrick Motorsports President and General Manager Jeff Andrews said he understood why Elliott was frustrated and the situation would be handled internally. He noted that in addition to himself, team owner Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon talked with Elliott following the race.
“Certainly, there was nothing egregious there at all,” Andrews said. “You had two guys racing down into Turn 1 as fast as they possibly can, standing on the brakes and trying to get cars to turn right down there. It’s unfortunate. The last thing Kyle wanted to happen was that, I promise you.”
Despite Elliott’s disappointment at losing the race, he realized that claiming the regular-season title put his team in its best position ever entering the playoffs. With four victories, five Stage wins and the title, Elliott now has 25 playoff points.
“We just need to keep putting ourselves in position to win,” said Elliott, who claimed the NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2020. “Like I always say, if you’re going to get to Phoenix, you’re going to have to win. The more I’m in that spot, the better we’re going to thrive in them. The more you’re going to enjoy them and the more you enjoy them, the better you are going to do.”
Claiming the regular-season title Sunday also made Watkins Glen even more special in Elliott’s memory column.
“When you check that box of getting your first win wherever that comes track-wise, it’s always going to be forever a special place because of that,” Elliott said. “It’s nice to get those (regular season title) points. It’s obviously not the end goal, but it’s a nice steppingstone to try and achieve that.”