DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Chase Elliott was already NASCAR royalty. Now he’s also the sport’s road king.
Elliott won the Cup Series’ first road course race at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, holding off hard-charging Denny Hamlin following a late restart and notching his third consecutive victory away from ovals.
“I had a phenomenal car. I don’t think I did anything special today,” Elliott said.
NASCAR’s most popular driver, the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, also won on road courses at Charlotte and at Watkins Glen last year. He got a tougher challenge than many expected down the stretch in his latest roadie.
The 24-year-old driver had a 10-second lead with 10 laps to go and was pulling away when Kyle Busch blew a tire and brought out a caution that gave his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., a chance.
But Elliott stayed out front on the final restart. Hamlin got to his rear bumper on the last lap, but couldn’t do enough to mount any significant pressure.
“I kept him honest there,” Hamlin said. “He had such good drive off (the corners) I couldn’t do anything with him.”
Hamlin finished second, followed by Truex and seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Elliott, Hamlin and Truex had the cars to beat all afternoon. Truex’s chances took a huge hit near the end of the second segment. He was caught speeding on pit road and forced to start the last stanza at the back of the pack. Hamlin also got stuck behind slower cars early in the final stage.
Making up that kind of ground on a 14-turn, 3.61-mile road course was a nearly impossible task, especially considering Elliott was turning mistake-free laps at the front of the field.
But that late caution gave both a shot, albeit an unlikely one given Elliott’s road repertoire.
Another top contender, points leader Kevin Harvick, got turned around while braking into the “international horseshoe” and never recovered. Harvick finished 17th.
Kaz Grala was seventh in his Cup debut. Grala stepped into the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing after Austin Dillon tested positive for COVID-19. Dillon needs two negative tests 24 hours apart before being cleared to return.
“This is far beyond my wildest dreams for this event,” Grala said.
Ryan Newman was 19th in his return to the scene of his most harrowing crash.
Newman delivered a special message to safety workers minutes before the race started. Newman spoke over his radio to the control tower, a clip that was later played during the NBC broadcast.
“Thank you for your support, not only for me personally but all the things you do for all us drivers. It goes a long way, and I want to say thank you from the deepest of my heart. Thank you.”
Newman had to be cut from his No. 6 Ford after wrecking while leading the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17.
Newman was one of the few Cup drivers with experience on Daytona’s road course. He won an IROC race on the layout in 2004. Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Michael McDowell also had limited experience here.
None of them, though, had driven this exact course since NASCAR added a chicane coming off the oval’s Turn 4, a twister designed to slow speeds heading toward the start-finish line and create another potential passing zone.
The Cup drivers, as expected, handled the chicane better than those in any other series. They covered the 65-lape race with few cautions.
“These drivers are really, really good,” Hamlin said. “They are pros.”
Heat and humidity proved to be bigger issues. Drivers called for ice bags and bottles of water under caution. And when the race was red flagged for nearby lightning, drivers welcomed the nearly 45-minute break.
Johnson climbed out of his car and immediately unzipped his fire suit, exposing an elaborate cooling system over his T-shirt. Michael McDowell started chugging water. Elliott grabbed a towel and wiped away sweat.
All of them headed toward their haulers to cool down.
J.J. Yeley climbed out of his No. 27 a few laps before the red flag and collapsed on the pavement. He was helped onto a golf cart and taken to the medical center for evaluation and treatment.
Daniel Suarez had two crew members also leave the pits to get treatment.
“When we get out of the car, that feels like air conditioning,” said Truex, adding that NASCAR should allow teams to create more air flow by removing right-side windows at road courses.