Rain tests drivers’ skills at Road America
June 21, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- The one longest day of the year only comes around, well, once a year. But Saturday's summer solstice brought an even rarer occurrence -- NASCAR racing in the rain.
Of all the variables that NASCAR Nationwide Series teams faced on the treacherous Road America circuit in Saturday's Gardner Denver 200 Fired Up by Johnsonville, one that wasn't initially envisioned was for wet weather. As a result, a NASCAR national series bolted on rain tires for only the third time under race conditions in the sport's modern history, throwing a wild wrench into the Nationwide tour's first road-course race of the season.
"It was something different. We don't get to do that very much. Or ever, really," said fourth-place finisher Chase Elliott, who called the experience "a blast" despite the windshield of his JR Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet being cloudy and caked over after it was over. "I thought it was fun. It's a mess, but it's fun."
Spots of rain on portions of the track forced an early holding pattern and delayed the start of the 53-lap race, which was extended three laps beyond the scheduled distance because of a green-white-checkered overtime finish. Shortly before the opening pace laps, NASCAR officials ordered teams to install wiper blades in preparation for the advancing weather.
The early precipitation subsided but returned in heavier doses covering the entire 4.048-mile layout near the halfway point, forcing NASCAR officials to mandate a change to grooved rain tires for the 38-car field on Lap 27. Though the race neared the finish with brief periods of sunshine that eventually dried part of the racing line, the damp track still made for a constant eggshell walk for drivers with numerous off-course excursions that benefited some and hurt others.
The one who benefited most was Brendan Gaughan, who once served as a driving instructor at Road America and notched his first NASCAR national series victory since Oct. 11, 2003.
"I love racing in the rain. It's fun. And when you're good at it, it makes it even more fun," said Gaughan, who led eight laps. "I hadn't smelled blood in a long time. That's something I've been lacking lately is that killer attitude and when it started to rain -- even without the wiper blade -- I started to smell blood and said, 'I'm coming.' ... It was exciting. Tiptoe-ing around is fun to do."
NASCAR had run just two previous Nationwide Series races in rainy conditions -- both at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve venue in Montreal (2008, 2010). In the first of those events, the race was halted early because of a downpour that crippled visibility and created hazardous conditions with standing water.
Saturday's race never quite reached the torrential stage, but the drivers' ability to see was put to the test -- especially when late-race sunshine created a massive glare. In those instances, the blinking rear taillight on every car offered some degree of help.
"I couldn't see two cars in front of me at all, so you really had to judge it off where that light was at," said rookie Dylan Kwasniewski, who finished 26th after early transmission problems. "If you didn't have that, you'd just pop out of nowhere and now you have a car in front of you. It was a little sketchy at points, but it was fine."