Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Chase Elliott Sounds the Si-reen in Texas

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

It was 42 races since Chase Elliott last saw victory lane before Sunday (April 14), and it probably seemed even longer for Elliott as there have been two off-seasons in between as well as a couple of months on the sidelines last year after a snowboarding accident.

Elliott has had good cars, but at times hasn’t looked as hungry as he could have. That hunger was on display at Texas Motor Speedway, as Elliott survived multiple late cautions and won the Auto Trader EchoPark Automotive 400 under caution over runner-up Brad Keselowski.

Elliott has run well this year but needed to put together a total race. He did that on Sunday, finishing in the top 10 in each of the opening stages and leading three times for 39 total laps.

See also
Chase Elliott Snaps 42-Race Winless Streak, Wins in Texas

Elliott had to hold off drivers like Denny Hamlin, Ross Chastain and Keselowski on restarts in the final laps, hoping he had enough fuel in the tank for the last overtime run. If anyone went to bed early in Dawsonville, Ga. tonight, they got quite an awakening.

And don’t forget Carson HocevarHocevar drove like a veteran on Sunday, avoiding trouble that even some of the veterans couldn’t escape and driving to a career-best 10th-place finish in Texas. Hocevar kept his head after spinning on lap 115 and drove his way back to the front. It wasn’t an easy day for the 21-year-old, but it was a learning experience that came with a great result.

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

Fans don’t like it. A lot of drivers don’t like it. Texas dropped from two races to one (after once filing a lawsuit to get a second race) because of higher demand for racing at other tracks, but in this case, absence hasn’t made the heart grow fonder.

There have been rumors of reconfigurations for a couple of years, but so far nothing has come of them. The same old, same old isn’t making anybody happy. So, what does the future hold for Texas?

It’s hard to imagine the Mild Asphalt Circus falling off the schedule entirely, but the options are limited as far as changing anything to make the racing better. Reversing the 2018 reconfiguration might make the racing a bit better, but it wasn’t really great on that surface either.

A complete reconfiguration to something other than an intermediate track would mean either a short track — which would have been well-received before the Next Gen cars turned out to be pretty terrible on the short tracks — or another Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Atlanta, the mini-Talladega Superspeedway, has actually improved a bit as it’s aged, but what NASCAR doesn’t need is another track where people come for the crashes and stay for more crashes. Also, Atlanta is currently unique. Every intermediate oval doesn’t need to be just like it.

The “where do we go from here?” question is actually fairly limited in answers, and none of them are particularly good ones.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Kyle Larson was the class of the field in the first stage, dominating the field to take the stage win, but in stage two, the wheels fell off.

OK, it was just one wheel, but it meant a two-lap penalty for Larson (in addition to penalties that will come later this week) along with any damage to his car from the incident. Larson made up his lost laps, but his car had enough damage that Larson wasn’t able to work his way very far forward.

A solo spin didn’t help matters, and Larson finished 21st in the chaos.

Last week’s winner and defending Texas winner William Byron had a surprisingly mediocre run for most of the day, running in the back half of the top 10 for a large portion of the day. The cluster of late restarts helped Byron’s chances, and he was in the top five when it mattered. Contact with Chastain in the closing laps sent the No. 1 into the wall and gave Byron another spot for a third-place result.

See also
William Byron Apologetic After Last-Lap Contact with Ross Chastain

Keselowski, who has a series-best 6.8 average over the last five Texas races, improved on that despite a shaky start to the weekend. After rolling off, Keselowski and the No. 6 crew made steady gains. He had one of the fastest cars on track on the final run and fell just short of the win, finishing second.

When… was the moment of truth?

A lot of fans will remember the race as a good one because the sport’s most popular driver won and there was drama at the end because of multiple restarts. But a lot of the cautions that led to a close finish came from how bad the track is, not because of hard racing.

Elliott didn’t have the fastest car, which is fine. Speed isn’t the only factor in a win. But reality is this track, even with a racecar that’s pretty good on most of the intermediate tracks on the circuit, is almost impossible to pass on. Most of the crashes came from aerodynamic dependence, not from contact. 

At the end of the day, the late restarts kept it exciting and a popular driver took the checkers. But it wasn’t a great race, or really even a good one. 

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

If you think Texas was wild, hold onto your cowboy hat. 

The Cup Series heads down to Talladega this weekend, and it’s virtually guaranteed to be even messier than this week. Beyond the pack racing and the inevitable crashes, though, it’s shaping up to be an important race.

Coming to the halfway point of the regular season in a few weeks, teams who have struggled in the points can look at Talladega as a bit of a reset button if they can win. It wraps up a playoff spot and allows them to approach the summer months with a goal of preparing for the playoffs instead of teetering on the brink of getting in.

Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Haley are superspeedway winners who may need a win to make the playoff cut, and any of them could come through on Sunday. Keselowski is just a couple points outside the cutoff. A win has been elusive lately, though he enters the weekend with some nice momentum from Texas.

Don’t be surprised if there’s a new addition to the playoff list a week from now.

How… likely are we to see a first-time winner this year?

Just about everyone likes to see a driver take his first win. Whether he builds a Hall of Fame career on it or only gets to enjoy victory lane once, that celebration is always a memorable one.

See also
4 Burning Questions: Is 2024 the End of Next Gen Parity?

So far, the veterans have dominated 2024, but Ty Gibbs has been running with them just about everywhere, and his season is looking like that win is coming. He’s had some good runs inside the top 10 and top five, led some laps and taken some lumps and gotten back up afterward. Those are things that winners do, so a Gibbs victory wouldn’t come as a surprise.

Other drivers who could put one together but look like they have a ways to go first include the Stewart-Haas Racing brigade of Josh Berry, Ryan Preece and Noah Gragson. All three have put together some good races but have yet to show the consistency that often indicates a win is close. They’re also teammates on a team whose equipment hasn’t been top-flight for a few years.

All three have had runs that perhaps exceeded expectations, and all three have experience winning in other divisions. It doesn’t look imminent for any of them, but it could happen.

One first-timer this year is a safe bet, and two or three isn’t out of the realm of imagination.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Jeremy

Is it time to stop being concerned for Elliott? Is he now favored to win the Championship? lol

Joshua

Amy, are you kidding me? That was a great race. There were lead changes, passing throughout the field. Cautions to keep drivers honest and drama at the front. NO TRACK should be perfect. What would Darlington be without the grit and sand that wears out tires? Wished we could send you back to the days of Riverside and ANY track on the circuit before NASCAR spent 8 laps sweeping the track after every caution. A GOOD DRIVER AVOIDS OBSTACLES.

Joshua

So my comment wasn’t approved? Douches.

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