Friday 5: Chase Elliott looks to put on a show for fans at Road America
NASCAR is set to enjoy another large crowd this weekend, and reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott says it is important that the sport ensures that fans have a good experience.
Road America hosts the Xfinity Series on Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) and the Cup Series on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). The track’s campsites sold out quickly for this weekend, and the track is encouraging fans to carpool and arrive early.
Nashville Superspeedway sold out its grandstands, hosting nearly 40,000 people for its inaugural Cup race two weeks ago, but the start of the race was delayed because of traffic issues for some fans.
Last weekend, Pocono Raceway announced a sellout of its infield camping for its doubleheader Cup weekend and had what some observers considered the track’s largest crowd in years.
Now comes the first Cup race at Road America since 1956 and the anticipation for that event.
“When you have a great crowd, I feel like you have a responsibility to treat the crowd properly,” Elliott said. “I know there were some problems at Nashville, traffic and things like that, and that’s not good.
“If I was a fan and I had to wait in a long line of traffic to come to a race for the first time, that would make me think twice about going again. ... We need to make sure we are treating our fans (well), especially with the facilities and traffic in and out, just making sure we’re taking good care of them. If they are there to support us, we need to make sure their time is enjoyable and they had a good trip.”
The day after the Nashville race, track president Erik Moses sent a letter to fans thanking them for their attendance and stating that traffic issues would be addressed.
For the drivers, racing in front of large crowds, the goal, Elliott says, is to “just try to put on a good show.”
Few have been better than Elliott at road courses lately. He’s won five of the past seven Cup road course races. That includes his victory in the inaugural Cup race at Circuit of the Americas last month.
His six career road course victories tie him for third on the all-time list with Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd.
Elliott’s success on the track and his lineage have made him the sport’s most popular driver, but he says that doesn’t mean he should be considered the face of the sport.
“Who is to say there needs to be one face?” Elliott said. “We’re a sport of a lot of drivers and a lot of personalities and a lot of teams. … There’s no one person that, I don’t think, can carry the load of attracting everyone to watch.
“Fans have certain people they like watching. My fans like watching me, and there’s a lot of people who probably don’t and that, to me, is what makes it special because it’s not about one person. My response is that I think it takes all shapes and sizes to make this deal work, and I feel I’m a piece of the puzzle.”
Hendrick Motorsports has figured out the puzzle on the track. The organization has won six of the last seven points races. Elliott won at COTA, Alex Bowman won at Pocono and Dover, and Kyle Larson won the Coca-Cola 600, Nashville and Sonoma.
Hendrick Motorsports has won 14 of the last 33 Cup race races. The success, though, has led to the question of if the organization is peaking too soon.
“I definitely think that can happen,” Elliott said. “I’ve watched it happen, so I know it’s real, but I do know continued hard work and continuing to push in the areas that we’re pushing in and continuing to work together as a team and push each other to be better, I think we continue to perform at a high level throughout the entire season. That’s ultimately what we need to do.”
2. Jeff Gordon looks ahead
While Jeff Gordon has played a leadership role at Hendrick Motorsports since exiting the car, the team recently announced he would become vice chairman, the No. 2 spot in the organization behind only team owner Rick Hendrick.
Gordon talked to the media last weekend at Pocono and discussed his role:
Q: Did you always feel that you were going to be on this ownership path?
Gordon: You have to understand that I’ve been a part of this since 1999. I’ve been behind the scenes, understanding and learning the business side of it. Gradually, over time, obviously my focus was on driving throughout all those years. But as I started getting closer to stepping away in 2015 from the driving role, my interest level in the business side, the culture that Rick has created and how he’s done that and how it impacts things far beyond just what I was doing as a driver, was interesting to me.
So, each year, that ramped up more and more as I had pretty much half the season to dedicate my time to it. And the more I did that, whether it was coming to the track or being back at the shop on race day or just talking to the marketing department about sponsorship or talking to NASCAR about Next Gen or any business decisions that were going on there with other owners, I realized that this is where my true passion lies.
I love the sport. I love racing. But the competition and being a partner with one of the best owners there will ever be in NASCAR, that’s really what I was getting excited about looking ahead.
Q: What do you have to learn with the new job now?
Gordon: Well, luckily right now, we’re in a great position, and it’s about maintaining what we currently have. But that all got started so many years ago before I even got to Hendrick Motorsports with Rick, and the culture that he creates and how he treats people and how he finds talent and nurtures that.
Of course right now, we’ve learned a lot about how our teams are working together more than they ever have before. And we’re seeing the success because of that. Right now, it’s about maintaining it.
But as we move forward, it’s just continuing to look at the business model and try to understand how we take care of our current partners and nurture those relationships and make sure that they’re excited about NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports. They certainly are right now, and we want to continue to see that grow. But also, what new partners can we potentially look at and bring in.
Q: Did working in TV give you any perspective toward the business side you didn’t expect?
Gordon: Oh yeah. That’s one of my goals is to really connect with our TV partners and make sure that our drivers and crew chiefs recognize that their personality, their performance, the show on the race track, that it means way more than you think.
As a competitor, you get very narrowly focused on the competition. And this sport wouldn’t have the fans and wouldn’t be as big as it is if millions of people weren’t watching it on TV. And they want to see rivalries, right? They want to see personalities and frustrations and excitement.
I think that my perspective, coming from the last six years doing TV, it is definitely going to be present at Hendrick Motorsports and how we move forward. And I think our guys do a great job with that, but there’s no doubt we can do more.
3. Staying the course
One of the challenges for teams is when reports state that a driver will be headed to a different organization the following season or such announcements have been made. The key is not to let those situations impact the current season.
Reports state that Brad Keselowski will move to Roush Fenway Racing next season as a driver and part-owner in the team. No official announcement has been made. The Cup Series just entered the second half of the season last weekend, so plenty of racing remains, including the playoffs.
Keselowski is only the second driver crew chief Jeremy Bullins has worked with in Cup. Bullins previously worked with Ryan Blaney before Team Penske moved its crew chiefs within the organization before the 2020 season, so he hasn’t had to manage a team with a driver expected to leave it after the season until now.
“I think the biggest thing for me is honesty and transparency about the situation,” Bullins said. “Letting the guys know what I know. Having Brad let them know what he knows. Let everybody try to be kept on the same page and understand what the situation is.
“We are all professionals and our team is handling this very professionally. We know that no matter what happens beyond 2021 that we have a great opportunity with Brad to win races and put ourselves back in the (Championship) four at Phoenix.
“We will deal with 2022 then or in the off-season. For us, the main thing is that the timing was unfortunate because we had a few weeks with issues and things going wrong and penalties at a time when all these rumors were going around. … I hope last weekend proved a point that we are here to contend for wins and a championship. We had a great weekend at Pocono and feel like we got our legs back under us a little bit and are ready to go through the summer.”
Keselowski had six consecutive finishes outside the top 10 until last weekend at Pocono. He placed 10th in Saturday’s race and third in Sunday’s race. That finish was his best result since placing third at Kansas in early May.
4. The challenge of Road America
AJ Allmendinger will compete in both the Xfinity and Cup races this weekend at Road America for Kaulig Racing. He’s won there in both the former Champ Car World Series (2006) and Xfinity Series (2013).
Allmendinger said the road course has a uniqueness that many might not notice.
“It’s probably one of the harder road courses to learn,” Allmendinger said of the 4.048-mile, 14-turn course. “There are so many corners and they all kind of connect to each other.
“At some road courses, yeah, there is this corner and then the next corner. Sometimes they just don’t actually connect to each other. They’re just like separate corners. Road America, for the most part, every corner kind of connects to each other.
“So if you mess up that corner, it’s going to hurt you for the next corner, or it’s going to hurt you down the straightaways. It is a difficult racetrack to learn because some of the corners are either blind uphill or they’re flat, so trying to find your marks of getting into the corners (is not easy).”
5. Top performers in the last 10 Cup races
It’s no surprise that Kyle Larson has scored the most points in the last 10 races — he’s finished in the top two in seven of the last eight races — but once you get past the top five, the next driver might be a surprise.
Tyler Reddick has scored 314 points in the last 10 races to rank sixth. He has six top-10 finishes in that span. It’s helped Reddick climb from 22nd in the points entering the Talladega race in late April to 13th in the standings — and in a playoff spot — going into Sunday’s race at Road America.
David Smith examined Reddick’s season this week, showcasing what the driver has done well and where improvement is needed.
Here is a look at the drivers who have scored the most points in the last 10 Cup races:
460 — Kyle Larson
405 — Kyle Busch
380 — William Byron
348 — Chase Elliott
327 — Denny Hamlin
314 — Tyler Reddick
312 — Kevin Harvick
307 — Alex Bowman
300 — Brad Keselowski
299 — Joey Logano