The fastest car is supposed to win, right?
Chase Elliott appeared to have the fastest car at Charlotte Motor Speedway on two separate occasions within the past week. The trouble is, he only won one of the two NASCAR Cup Series races held on that track within that time frame.
As has been well documented by now, Elliott was seemingly on his way to victory on Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600 until a late race caution came out when Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron suffered a flat tire and spun. With the race heading toward an overtime finish, the No. 9 Chevrolet crew opted to bring their car to pit road for fresh tires. The problem with that was not everyone else on the lead lap followed suit as ten lead lap cars remained on the track under the caution.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson made the decision to bring his driver in, gambling that enough others would do the same. The hope was that new tires would be so much faster than old tires that even if a few did not roll down pit road, those cars would be helpless against those who did get tires in the short dash to the checkered flag. However, so many cars stayed on the track that Elliott had to restart from the 11th spot.
By not pitting, Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski inherited the lead as the field prepared to settle the issue in one of the sport’s crown jewel events. With only two laps of green flag racing remaining, Elliott moved all the up to third(second after Jimmie Johnson’s post-race disqualification), passing almost all of those who had not pitted but ultimately was unable to catch leader Keselowski.
It almost felt as if Keselowski had somehow backed into the win by simply not pitting when the fastest car at that stage of the race did.
On Thursday evening when the second of two Cup Series races on the 1.5-mile Charlotte quad-oval was contested, Elliott again found himself leading late in the going as the finish of the Alsco Uniforms 500 approached. This time, however, no yellow flag waved and the popular second-generation racer drove to the win.
No doubt many Elliott enthusiasts felt as if the right thing had finally happened. The most popular driver with the fastest car won the race. No gimmicks, no pit stop miscall, no wild dash to the finish. It was simply a case of the best car at the end of the race cruising to the finish line for the victory.
But the reality of it is that the “right” car won both races.
Elliott did in fact have the best car during the final stage of the Coca-Cola 600 but the fact of the matter is that the No. 9 team made the wrong call and cost themselves a victory. Simply having the best car has never, nor should it ever, guarantee a win. Strategy and good decision making are just as much a part of the formula for success as speed.
Seeing a team or an individual make the right call at the right time provides one of the best story lines in sports. At the same time, watching a team or an individual lose because of making the wrong call at the wrong time also provides an interesting story.
Of those who had no real rooting interest in the outcome on Thursday night, who wasn’t kind of hoping for another late race caution just to see what Elliott and Gustafon would do this time around?
Sometimes the fastest car wins and sometimes it doesn’t. Chase Elliott and his crew proved that both can happen during a span of only four days.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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