WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – William Byron cruised to his fifth NASCAR Cup Series win of 2023 at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, Aug. 20. Rounding out the top five behind him were Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, AJ Allmendinger and Ty Gibbs.
The victory is Byron’s first on a road course and Hendrick Motorsports’ fifth consecutive victory at Watkins Glen.
But What Really Happened?
In the media center at the Watkins Glen infield on Sunday afternoon, I stood in the lobby conversing with other reporters about the day’s events before we all made our farewells.
The topic of the race’s time length was brought up, as Sunday’s race was the shortest timewise in the NASCAR modern era (since 1972).
As the sun set outside, we joked that this may be the earliest we’ve ever left a racetrack as a result of the abridged event.
But in fact, we were sort of wrong.
Why? Because in such a short event like this, there weren’t many things that happened to write about in the first place.
One of the few notable events of the 90-lap race was the one and only caution that occurred on lap 57 when Chase Elliott mysteriously ran out of fuel and parked on the course’s chicane. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a minute.
Aside from that, however, most of the day was lackluster and spent watching William Byron spank the field in long and drawn-out green flag sessions as the field spread out and passing became scarce.
In fact, in the final 30 laps of the 90-lap event, not a single overtake was made among the top six drivers. In the last 16 laps, no passes were made among the top 11 drivers. That’s a whole third of the event completed with no passing among the leaders all under green flag conditions.
We can place our blame on the Next Gen car’s performance on the road course all we wish, but it’s hard to deny that it did put on an okay show at Circuit of the Americas and a great event at the Chicago Street Course.
That said, Watkins Glen used to be a hot ticket in the era of the Gen 6 car as it dazzled us with some fantastic late-race battles and alternating pit stop strategy. Yet none of that was present on Sunday, and it showed that a lack of some of the most fun aspects of NASCAR racing on road courses can make even the literal shortest NASCAR race in 51 years seem like it went on for an eternity.
So, was it underwhelming because of the Next Gen car? Was it the track? Or was it maybe just dumb luck?
Who Stood Out?
Speaking of Byron.
After leading a race-high 66 laps and dominating the entirety of stage two before going on to win his fifth Cup race of the season, it’s hard to pick anybody else to take the limelight in what was arguably the most uneventful race of the year.
But give credit where credit is due. Byron hasn’t been known very well for his road course racing. In fact, it was his first road course win ever.
Let’s be clear, that doesn’t mean his first road course win in the Cup Series. It doesn’t even mean his first road course win in any of NASCAR’s three national series.
It’s Byron’s first road course win ever.
And he didn’t steal it or win it on fuel mileage or any other pit road strategy. He flat out ran away with it.
It’s little to no doubt that the credit goes to road course ace and former sports car star Max Papis who, according to Byron, has been coaching him on his road racing skills.
With the exception of the dirt race, Byron now has won on all of NASCAR’s different racetrack types this year alone. With five wins in the bank and still one more race left before entering the playoffs, that’s a dangerous confidence boost for him to have in the eyes of the rest of the field.
However, that may not have come to be if it weren’t for a mechanical failure for Michael McDowell, who was the only driver that could have possibly challenged Byron after he won stage one and led 17 laps.
Alas, that was before his day ended with him in dead last.
Who Fell Flat?
Let’s talk about the Napa Auto Parts-sponsored elephant in the room.
Going into Sunday, there was a feeling of tension surrounding the No. 9 team. It was no secret the HMS driver and 2020 series champion Elliott didn’t just need a good performance at Watkins Glen to keep his playoff hopes alive. He needed to win.
Saturday had put the sport’s Most Popular Driver in a deep hole to get out of in the first place. The No. 9 had qualified 15th for the main event, which is a near mark of doom for anybody at the 2.45-mile road course, as in only two of the 39 total Cup races at Watkins Glen has a driver won after starting 15th or lower.
Elliott was unperturbed, however.
And for a time after the green flag on Sunday, he was showing signs of speed. Elliott had climbed as high as seventh at one point and was playing the fuel mileage game late in the running.
He had plans to pit for fuel on lap 55, but he never made it there as his car sputtered out of gas before he could complete the circuit.
It’s still a little unclear as to what exactly happened to Elliott in those laps before he came to a stop in the chicane. On one hand, there is speculation that there was a mechanical malfunction that caused the car to lose fuel pressure.
On the other hand, there’s also the possibility of strategist miscalculation.
When FOX Sports reporter Bob Pockrass asked crew chief Alan Gustafson what specifically happened, the 2020 championship-winning HMS leader deflected the question and refused to comment.
You can speculate however you see fit, but one thing is certain, Elliott is one race loss away from missing the Cup Series playoffs for the first time in his career as a result.
Better Than Last Time?
Well, it certainly wasn’t better.
Last year saw double the lead changes and some late-race drama between teammates in a battle for the win that kept people talking for at least a week.
But there is no denying that the final green flag stretch of the race killed much of Sunday’s momentum in what is the closing weeks of the regular season.
But it wasn’t only not better than last time, it may have been the worst it’s been in 58 years depending on how you look at it.
Sunday had only one caution flag period to rely on in order to keep the field from getting too strung out. That is the lowest number of yellow flags in not only the Cup Series, but in all NASCAR national series races at Watkins Glen since 1965.
For perspective, in 1965, the Watkins Glen road course was only 2.3 miles long, featured an additional turn where today’s frontstretch is and hosted the annual United States Grand Prix for the Formula One championship.
Things sure have changed.
When it comes to caution flags, however, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Paint Scheme of the Race
Do you like waffles?
Do you like moonshine?
What about good paint schemes?
If you answered any of those questions with a yes, you may have been intrigued by JTG Daugherty Racing and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s car design this weekend.
It’s an odd – yet delicious – combination of brands put into one to create a unique livery design on the No. 47 this weekend. While the product itself is a jar of Sugarland’s moonshine, its Eggo waffle flavor constitutes a waffle-texture design that probably made a lot of people hungry for waffles.
It’s the latest in JTG’s collection of paint schemes this season that overall have displayed a vast improvement in art design compared to previous years. However, this one now begs the question; do waffles and moonshine mix well?
As one who has tried it, I can confirm it does. Drink responsibly!
One last chance.
The Cup Series returns to Daytona International Speedway for the regular season finale to set this year’s playoff field. Qualifying for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 will be live on Friday, Aug. 25, at 5:05 p.m. ET with the race being televised live on Saturday, Aug. 26, at 7 p.m. ET on NBC.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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