For most of the NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), it appeared that Trackhouse would claim two positions in the top-five.
And then it got wild at the end.
Tyler Reddick of 23XII proved to have the best car in the race as he dominated by keeping his No. 45 Toyota in front for a race-high 41 laps.
But last year’s COTA winner put on the real show.
It was Trackhouse star Ross Chastain, who had to battle back from deep in the field after he was involved in a scuffle on a restart to finished fourth.
“I thought we were a top-five car all day,” Chastain said after the race. “I thought the 45 (Reddick) had us covered. There was a line of Chevys second through sixth. It was about positioning each other while we were saving fuel, then racing each other, whoever was in front was going to be pretty good.”
Chastain appeared to have the winning strategy as the laps wound down in the final portion of the scheduled distance of the race. He was running third and had plenty of fuel in the tank of his No. 1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet.
With 16 laps remaining, the two cars in front of him on the track, race-leader Reddick, and second-place William Byron, had to conserve fuel to make it to the scheduled distance.
At that time, both Chastain and Trackhouse teammate Daniel Suarez were confident they had enough fuel to make it to the distance.
With 14 laps to go, Suarez had moved up to fourth, one position behind Chastain. On the next lap, Chastain raced his way up to second as Byron continued to back it down on the throttle to make it to the finish.
It was “game on” for the two Trackhouse drivers as Suarez passed Chastain for second place in the hairpin turn. Both drivers went after the leader in what was setting up to be an interesting battle to the finish.
That battle, however, changed when Brad Keselowski’s Ford came to a stop just off course, NASCAR threw the yellow flag with 12 laps to go.
Pit road opened with 11 laps to go and everybody on the lead lap came down pit road to thwart the fuel advantage that both Trackhouse cars appeared to have.
Chastain’s hopes at victory appeared to be foiled when a lug-nut issue kept him in the pits longer than normal.
He returned to the track after losing his advantage but was still in the fight. Suarez would restart in the eighth position.
Both Chastain and Suarez had another teammate in this race as former Formula One World Champion Kimi Raikkonen was in the PROJECT91 car – an extra entry for the team that brings an international racing star to NASCAR.
Raikkonen came out in fourth place and was told to “be aggressive” on the restart.
Once the green flag waved, a swarm of stock cars surrounded Chastain never made it through the first turn without getting wadded up in a crash. NASCAR threw the yellow and his attempt at a second-straight COTA victory appeared over as he was mired back in 18th position.
Also, Raikkonen was shuffled back in the field and no longer in contention for a top-10 finish.
At that point, Suarez was in contention to fight it out for the win, something he wanted to do so badly in a “Homecoming Race” for the popular driver from Monterrey, Mexico.
Suarez had not seen his mother in several months and his sister in over one year. Both made the 6-1/2-hour drive from Monterrey to watch the Trackhouse driver compete at COTA.
On the next restart with eight laps left of the scheduled distance, Suarez was on the outside of Row Three, but was surrounded by Bell and Bowman as the race became fierce.
Suarez punted Martin Truex out of the way to get to fourth place with six laps to go. The three drivers ahead of him included race leader Reddick, Byron, and Kyle Busch.
With just three laps to go, however, NASCAR issued a caution for debris after Austin Dillon’s Chevrolet engine blew up.
Once again, that put the outcome in doubt.
There were 31 cars left on the lead lap as the race entered overtime.
On the restart, Busch moved into second by passing Byron. Suarez was between Byron and Truex. Chastain had moved into 10th place and Raikkonen was running 16th.
Ryan Blaney’s Ford was damaged from contact, with Ryan Preece and NASCAR threw the yellow flag for yet another caution. Both Blaney’s and Preece’s cars were badly damaged with shredded rubber from the tires spewing all over the track.
The second attempt at overtime had Suarez inside Row 3 when the green flag waved. He was divebombed in Turn 1 and that ruined his chance at the win as he was punted back to 29th place.
Meantime, Chastain had fought his way back to fifth place as Reddick attempted to drive away from Busch.
When the tire on Suarez’s Chevrolet shredded, NASCAR officials threw another yellow flag. Raikkonen also was involved in an incident.
Chastain lined up fourth, the outside of Row Two, for the second attempt at overtime.
Chastain got boxed in on the restart in Turn 1 with Reddick, Bowman, and Busch in full view through the windshield.
There was another major pileup, however, but NASCAR did not throw the yellow flag in an attempt to finally end the race.
Once Reddick took the white flag, the next flag would end the race. Chastain was unable to break into the top three, but it was a brilliant effort on his part to score a top-five finish after his race appeared to be over.
He drove the Chevrolet across the finish line in fourth place, overcoming late race adversity by fighting his way through the field on the challenging 3.41-mile, 19-turn COTA race course.
“When we got spun, I think we restarted down at Niece Equipment south of town,” Chastain quipped after climbing out of his No. 1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet. “To come back to a top five was a top effort for our Worldwide Express team.”
Suarez hoped his family reunion would happen in Victory Lane.
Over at PROJECT91, Raikkonen finished 29th in his second NASCAR Cup Series race for the 2007 Formula One World Champion.
“I think it wasn’t too bad,” Raikkonen said afterwards. “We got unlucky with the incidents that happened. It was one of those things, unfortunately. Then there were no tires left.
“They kept coming, getting more restarts and more restarts, so I think after the spin I had, the tires were just done.
“It’s a shame because when we were there, but then we restart, and just wrong place, wrong time. It was a case of trying to stay out of the issues in the first corners and every time. It looked like you’d be very good, then three corners later, somebody’s going the wrong direction. There’s a bit of mess and luck involved.”
Raikkonen discovered the major differences between driving a Formula One race that is over in about 2 hours to Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race that took 3 hours, 30 minutes, and 32 seconds to complete.
“It was a long race,” Raikkonen said. “Our cool suit didn’t work half of the race, it stopped working. So, it was quite hot in the car. It was fun going through the field, but it was a bit intense on the restarts.”
“It’s such a shame how it went in the end, but I think we did the right thing. We were there. But then on the restart it’s how it was.
“We’ll see what the future brings. Right now, I have no clue.”
For Suarez and Raikkonen, it was disappointment. Although it wasn’t a victory for Chastain, the “Watermelon Farmer” from Alva, Florida was proud of the comeback effort he was able to achieve.
“Getting spun, the engine went into low-wheel protection mode because it spun backwards,” Chastain recalled. “Finally got the ECU cycled and got it back going, and somehow rallied back for a top-five.
“I have no idea how we got through all of that.”
It was a race to be proud of, but one that Chastain seems room for growth as a racer.
“Another top five here,” he said. “I love this place. I love road course racing. But the fight to get better never stops. I know there's things I can be doing better.
“From everybody from Jockey to Moose, Advent Health, everybody at Trackhouse, it was (team owner) Justin Marks' birthday this weekend.
“We ended up with a good finish, but it wasn't the prettiest.”