By Cole Cusumano
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Teams in the NASCAR Cup Series have been tested this season with learning a brand-new seventh-generation stock car, but as the weekend went on in Watkins Glen, there was a growing belief they’d be faced with their greatest challenge yet: rain.
The forecast called for a 50% chance of precipitation by the time the Go Bowling at The Glen was scheduled to take place at 3 p.m., and by the looks of the daunting skies painted above the lush rolling hills and Seneca lake, it seemed imminent.
To the dismay of the sell-out crowd at Watkins Glen International and audiences watching at home, the initial start was delayed, with a 30-minute lightning hold. Almost immediately after receiving the “all clear” signal from officials, another bolt tacked on an additional half-hour.
Finally, with rain continuing to fall, drivers were able to hop in their cars and generate pace laps following the delay. As if the anticipation wasn’t agonizing enough, NASCAR opted to throw a red flag to expel standing water in certain areas of the 2.45-mile track, which could’ve made for a disastrous start.
On a smaller scale of concern, drivers complained of water seeping into the car through windows and other openings of the car. Many such as Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott even succumbed to radio issues, which were able to be handled during the red flag. However, there was a much more severe challenge at play: visibility.
“I’m glad we didn’t start the race when we rolled out the first time,” third-place finisher Joey Logano said. “I couldn’t see under caution, so I was thinking this was a bad deal if we went green.
“I think the vision issue may be worse than what the old car was. That’s just a product of a bigger tire, so you’re going to have that, but we survived.”
Goodyear debuted a new radial tire that increased from 15 inches in diameter to 18 with a tread that mimicks the company’s Eagle Supercar 3 model used by everyday drivers. The only issue with running a bigger product is the spray behind will be much more significant.
The last thing teams wanted was a repeat of the carnage of racing in the rain like Circuit of the America last year, especially at a track nicknamed “the superspeedway of road courses,” where speeds reach excess of 120 mph.
After all, Kurt Busch still has yet to recover from a brain injury after a crash in qualifying at Pocono Raceway on July 24, so driver safety is at an all time premium given the unknowns of the Next Gen car.
“I’m glad we didn’t start the race when they wanted to,” runner-up A.J. Allmendinger said. “That was going to be dangerous and tough. Once we started it, it actually wasn’t too bad. It was disappointing getting spun early, so we were always trying to play catch-up, but those conditions weren’t bad in these cars.
“It was fun to drive and it was just a fun day.”
By time the green flag waved, rain wasn’t falling, but the track was wet and NASCAR allowed teams to change from slicks to proper tires. This made for some hectic racing and standout performances from esteemed road course racers like Michael McDowell, who drove by Elliott to lead eight of the opening laps.
“I sucked at it, personally,” Elliott told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “There was a lot of guys that drove by me and were making it look really easy.”
“I didn’t care,” Daniel Suarez said after picking up his sixth top-five of the season. “My car was good in both ways. Probably a little bit too tight at times in the transition from wet to dry, but overall my car was pretty strong.”
What made for an insanely compelling race were the varying strategies that showcased the genius of crew chiefs throughout the garage. Sure, road courses are notorious for mind games, but it was heightened with the high-octane battle of wits when pondering when to switch to slicks.
The most successful plans of the event came from Hendrick Motorsports, who were one of the few teams to execute a two-stop strategy for the 90-lap event. This proved to be the right call, as Elliott led a race-high 29 laps, while Kyle Larson ended up winning, albeit in controversial fashion.
Cliff Daniels, heralded for his genius as Larson’s crew chief during his championship run last year, kept his driver in the game and refused to fold when teams began pitting prematurely in Stage One. Instead, he stuck to his plan going in and leaned on his prior experience calling races in the rain.
“It was more about the question surrounding tires and fuel, which would be the same questions around executing a dry race,” Daniels told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I think in hindsight, NASCAR did a good job of how they managed to start the race. We got going in the wet and the track dried up pretty quick. The rain tires seemed to do a good job like we knew they would.
“I really didn’t see anything out of kind of what we expected.”
Overall, it was a successful debut for the Next Gen car under wet conditions, even if it wasn’t physically raining during competition. It’s possible tweaks can be made to improve the visibility, should the opportunity arise again, but it’s not imperative.
Driver safety is, and always should be, NASCAR’s number one concern, and the fact of the matter is, this was an insanely compelling race without rain or many cautions.
Ultimately, there are still many questions surrounding racing in the rain, but we’ll have one more chance to see the Cup Series potentially take it on at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval in October. Not only will this be the final road course event of the season, but it will be the cutoff race for the Round of 12 in the playoffs.