A long-anticipated debut for NASCAR at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) came last May. Plagued by a light but persistent rain, the track and series struggled to keep up with conditions and eventually shortened the event by a few laps. That was great news for Chase Elliott, who added to his mystique as the greatest, current road racer with a win that locked him into the playoffs.
And it put him within striking distance of being the greatest all-time.
That is how the race ended, but there was more complexity to the storyline. Elliott did not dominate that race. He earned the fourth-best Average Running Position (8.37) and had the third-best Driver Rating (121.0), and while those numbers are solid, he was off-sequence at the end of the race and would have finished closer to fifth if the Texas Grand Prix had not been shortened.
Joey Logano (124.6 / 6.59) and Kyle Larson (122.8 / 7.15) had better Driver Ratings and Average Running Positions. Kyle Busch (6.80) also had a better average position than Elliott. Logano led the most laps at 14; Busch was second-best with 12. As for Elliott, he led only five of the 54 circuits.
Of course, only one lap truly matters.
Winning is not always about who dominates, but who gets to the checkers first and with his sixth road course win, Elliott solidified his position third on the all-time list. He would go on to add one more at Road America later in the year and close to within one of Tony Stewart and two of Jeff Gordon for the top spot. With six races on this track type next year, he could easily achieve No. 1 status.
Fans also got a chance to see the Cup drivers race in the rain for a full event – and the full impact of COTA will not be known until the 2022 event is in the books.
In his second road course race with Hendrick Motorsports, Larson entered under the radar for a rare time in 2021. He faced long odds of +2200 to win – and if the race had gone green, the battle for the inaugural trophy would likely have come down to him and AJ Allmendinger (+2500).
There were plenty of other pleasant surprises. Ross Chastain finished fourth with outright odds to win of +12500. Sixth-place Chase Briscoe was +9000, seventh-place Michael McDowell was +6600, and ninth-place Tyler Reddick was +12500. These numbers dragged their top-five and -10 odds to a positive place.
Those results were partly attributable to the conditions as drivers tested and overtaxed the limits of grip and visibility. In one of the most horrendous accidents we've seen in recent years, one of the road course aces, Martin Truex Jr., was forced to slow when heavy spray limited his visibility to the nose of his hood. Cole Custer piled into him at full speed and both exited the race with bells ringing inside their helmets. Kevin Harvick also retired with damage and Kurt Busch provided one of the most exciting near-misses of the season, squeezing between his brother Kyle and Austin Dillon after wheel hopping. He dropped to 27th.
Ku. Busch remained on the lead lap, however, as did 30 others – and that is a testament to Cup drivers' ability to race under these conditions. COTA provided one of the most exciting races of 2021. Fans turned out in significant numbers, even with the soggy conditions. Now: Imagine what 2022 will look like if the track is dry.
1: Chase Elliott
No streaks: Inaugural race in 2021
Road Courses: COTA, Daytona road, Sonoma, Road America, Watkins Glen, Indy road, Charlotte road