Chase Elliott is pretty good at road course racing.
On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series ran the Daytona International Speedway road course for the first time. Elliott, who entered the weekend riding a two-race win streak on such layouts, extended it to three victories when he held off Denny Hamlin for his second Cup triumph of the 2020 season.
In the first race to use a new formula-based method to determine starting grid, points leader Michigan International Speedway sweeper Kevin Harvick started on the pole alongside Hamlin. Corey LaJoie (failed inspection twice) and Timmy Hill (unapproved adjustments) were sent to the rear.
Kaz Grala, subbing for Austin Dillon—who had tested positive for COVID-19 —in the #3 Richard Childress Racing car, and Stanton Barrett, replacing Reed Sorenson in the #77 Spire Motorsports machine, also started at the back. Other names included James Davison (thirty-eighth), who arrived in Daytona after spending Saturday qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, and Brendan Gaughan, running his first Cup road course race since 2004.
A battle of Joe Gibbs Racing team-mates quickly began as Hamlin took the lead with Kyle Busch in tow. Busch passed him in the Bus Stop chicane on the second lap before Hamlin retook it in turn two a lap later.
A flat spot on Busch’s left-front raised concerns about him pitting, but he continued to race before finally doing so. Flat spots would be the theme of the race with numerous drivers including Hamlin hitting pit road to address the matter.
Prior to pitting, Hamlin had lost the lead to Martin Truex Jr. on lap ten; during his stop, his air hose got stuck under the splitter. As various drivers pitted shortly before the stage end, Truex surrendered the lead to Elliott as he did so with two laps remaining.
Elliott would score his sixth stage win of the year ahead of Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones, William Byron, Truex, Cole Custer, and Ryan Preece. His Hendrick Motorsports team-mate Alex Bowman suffered a flat left-rear tyre on the final lap. Barrett, running his first NASCAR race of the year, exited the race on lap seven before returning later in the stage.
The stage ran without incident, a contrast to what some fans had expected entering the weekend as drivers were not given time to practice.
“For all those expecting a wild/messy first stage, these are, for the most part, very experienced drivers,” Xfinity Series driver Ryan Ellis tweeted. “They know how to feel out a track. Bigger mistakes and chaos happen when they’re fighting for position later in the race and comfortable.”
Those who pitted prior to the green-checkered flag stayed out, which placed Logano and Hamlin on the front row for the restart. Logano eventually fell back as Hamlin pulled to the lead.
Logano was the final driver to hit pit road, doing so on lap 20. Meanwhile, Truex moved up to second and closed the gap with ten laps remaining. He took the lead on lap 22 with a pass in turn 12, but relinquished it six laps later to pit.
However, Truex was penalised for speeding on pit road; although the infraction would usually require the driver to serve a pass-through penalty, he was unable to do so as pit road was closed with two laps left. As a result, Truex was ordered to start at the rear for Stage #3 and surrendered his stage points.
Hamlin would go on to win the stage. Finishing behind him were Bowyer, Blaney, Byron, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Preece, Truex, Elliott, Harvick, and Kurt Busch. With Truex’s points nullified, eleventh-placed LaJoie claimed his first stage point of the year.
Bowyer was the first off pit road, while Elliott led the field to the green flag. Shortly after, Harvick was spun by Christopher Bell but avoided further contact; he eventually went to pit road. Behind the leaders, Michael McDowell moved up to third.
During the stage, J.J. Yeley was replaced by Bayley Currey in the #27 Rick Ware Racing car as his coolbox had failed, resulting in his body overheating. Currey, who had run Saturday’s Xfinity race (which would have disqualified him from running the Cup race, but those in an interim role appear to be allowed), was serving as a crewman for Niece Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race prior to the Cup event. Heat exhaustion and dehydration, especially amplified in the humid summer climate of Florida, had also forced various Truck drivers to require medical attention after their race; Ty Majeski was taken to Halifax Hospital to receive further treatment.
“Tough day today,” Yeley wrote on Instagram after the race. “My AC failed and I was way overheated, I made the decision to get out in hopes of saving a good finish for [my car]. Today was the first time in my 16 year Nascar career that I had to get out before the end of the race.”
Currey would not spend much time in the #27 as the race was eventually red-flagged for lightning. After a half-hour wait and the lightning dissipated, the event switched to caution conditions, with much of the field electing to pit.
Elliott led the field to green on lap 40. In the West Horseshoe, John Hunter Nemechek was spun by Preece, though the race remained green. Harvick also went around on his own.
The final wave of green-flag stops began with 20 laps remaining. Meanwhile, Barrett, a Hollywood stuntman, had a stunt of his own when he went through the grass in the Bus Stop, though he did not receive a penalty.
When Elliott pitted on lap 48, he held an advantage of over eight seconds on Kyle Busch. Busch followed suit, only for his abysmal 2020 season to continue when his brake rotor failed; the issue had caused him to miss the final chicane coming to pit road. He rejoined the race with 11 laps left.
As the pit cycle continued, Truex and Grala led laps. The latter and Bowman were the last to pit when they did so with 13 laps remaining, shuffling Elliott back into the lead with a ten-second margin on Hamlin.
With seven laps left, Bell spun through the grass in the International Horseshoe, though no caution was called. On the other hand, his future JGR team-mate Busch brought out a yellow flag when he blew a left-rear tyre in NASCAR turn two and hit the outside wall. The leaders elected to stay out, with Logano (seventh) being the highest-running pitter.
Elliott and Hamlin comprised the front row for the final green flag with three laps remaining. A strong restart propelled Elliott to the front, forcing Hamlin to play catch-up. Despite LaJoie’s spin in the Bus Stop chicane, the race stayed green.
Hamlin could not catch Elliott as he secured his second victory of 2020, his first in nearly three months, and third straight road course win after Watkins Glen International and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval in 2019.
Johnson’s fourth-place finish marked his first top-five run on a road course since Watkins Glen in 2012. Grala finished seventh to wrap up a strong Cup début; it is the #3’s first road course top ten since Dale Earnhardt finished sixth in the 2000 Sonoma Raceway event. McDowell’s tenth-place run marked the first time he has ever scored a road course top the in his Cup career, a statistic that may surprise many as he is generally considered a solid road racer.
Dillon tweeted after the finish, “Way to go @KazGrala and the 3 team let’s go! Top 10”
“Just boarded the plane and got to my phone. WHAT A DAY,” Grala tweeted. “It’s an honor to drive for @RCRracing, and surreal to grab a P7 finish in my first ever @NASCAR Cup race. Proud of the entire No. 3 team. Get better @AustinDillon3!!!!”