No practice, no qualifying, new course — no problem for Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott.
The 24-year-old Elliott gave a not-so-subtle reminder Sunday afternoon in the NASCAR Cup Series debut on the Daytona International Speedway Road Course that he is one of the sport’s very best on the technical road circuits, even sight unseen as was the case this week.
Just before a caution flag with five laps remaining, Elliott had pulled out to a 10-second advantage on the field. He turned in a fantastic restart and drove three perfect final laps in his No. 9 Chevrolet to hold off Denny Hamlin by .202 seconds to win the GoBowling 235. It was Elliott’s third consecutive road-course win dating back to last year.
“Just had a really good car more than anything, not sure I did anything special today,” Elliott said. “Really fortunate from that standpoint. Had a good week of preparation and came out and really executed on the race.”
Elliott said he was hardly surprised about the late-race restart and prepared for it.
“To me was not when, but how many green-white-checkers we were going to have to do in a row and being better at executing those,” Elliott said. “Any win at Daytona is special. (Crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and I were joking that we had to change it to a road course to win at Daytona. … Just a great day.”
Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. finished third followed by seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and Chris Buescher. Clint Bowyer, Kaz Grala (who was substituting for Austin Dillon in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet), William Byron, Joey Logano and Michael McDowell completed the top 10 in a race so smooth and expertly handled that it more closely resembled an age-old venue than a first-time visit on a challenging 3.61-mile, 14-turn course.
“Let’s make sure we don’t look like a bunch of dummies there in Turn 1,” Hamlin said of a pre-race conversation with fellow drivers about the new venue. “We made sure we kept it clean to start and then you can get your bearings about you after you run a few laps. Really, it’s one of the those tracks where it’s not super technical but it definitely rewards the guys that do the right techniques on road courses.”
The veteran NASCAR Cup Series drivers immediately put on a driving display that seemed as if they had long raced on the circuit — which includes a tight infield road course as well as Daytona’s more famous high-banked turns.
Elliott has proven himself a road-course favorite even though he’s only in his fifth full-time season. He led the most laps — 34 of the 65 — and won the first stage on Sunday with Hamlin winning the second stage. Outside of regular pit stops, Elliott was either leading or about to lead all afternoon, resulting in Elliott’s eighth career win and second of the season — matching a victory in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I just wanted to keep him honest and it seemed like the closer we got the more his car was either wheel-hopping or sliding the front tires, so we were at least keeping him honest there to make him push his car and earn the victory,” said Hamlin, a five-race winner in 2020 and driver of the No. 11 Toyota.
Championship points leader and six-race winner Kevin Harvick had an eventful day in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford — contact with another car while running near the front and then another spin later in the race. He finished 17th but still leads the championship by 118 points over Hamlin.
Only three races remain to set the 16-driver NASCAR Playoffs field. Byron is in the 16th position with a 25-point edge over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson and a 35-point advantage over 18th-place Erik Jones with a doubleheader weekend scheduled next week on the 1-mile Dover International Speedway before the series returns to the Daytona 2.5-mile superspeedway for the regular-season finale.
Note: Inspection in the NASCAR Cup Series garage resulted in no major issues. The No. 4 of Kevin Harvick and the No. 19 of Martin Truex Jr. each had one lug nut not safe and secure in post-race inspection.