Chase Elliott never got comfortable in practice and never got a lap at speed in qualifying, but he did come away with the big prize Sunday at Road America.
The popular 25-year-old second-generation star and reigning Cup Series champion won the Jockey Made in America 250, the first race for the NASCAR’s premier series in Wisconsin in 65 years.
Elliott, who started 34th, drove his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to a victory of 5.705 seconds over Christopher Bell for his second victory of the Cup season and 13th overall.
Seven of those have come on road courses, including the inaugural race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in May. He has the most road course wins among active drivers and ranks third overall.
"This track has a lot of character to it," said Elliott, who led 24 of the 62 laps on the rolling 4.048-mile course. "It’s so long. You have a lot of opportunity to make mistakes or be good whenever you hit it.
"Just has a lot of character to it, a lot of bumps, a lot of sections that are really tricky to get through."
Kyle Busch, who won the Xfinity Series race a day earlier, finished third. His brother, Kurt, was fourth and Denny Hamlin was fifth.
After struggling to find a rhythm in practice Saturday, Elliott was hurt in the 25-minute first-round qualifying session Sunday morning, when caution flags interrupted both of his attempts to lay down a fast lap and ran out of time for a third try.
Elliott, Busch and a handful of others who started deep in the field took advantage of an alternate pit strategy, diving in on the 11th lap anticipating a caution that came a lap later while some teams waited for the stage break.
Three yellows and half the race later, nearly everyone was back on the same strategy. A flat tire on Anthony Alfredo’s car sent him off in the Carousel on the 43rd lap, giving everyone the opportunity to pit and, if they were light on the gas pedal, make it to the finish without pitting again.
"I never felt like I got in a real good rhythm all of yesterday," Elliott said. "For whatever reason there, after about halfway through the race, I started finding some of that rhythm, was able to put it together, piece different parts of the track. Finally I felt like I was able to piece most of it together."
Ryan Blaney stayed out, having been in for service when Alfredo brought out the caution. Busch took the lead from in Turn 3, and then Elliott passed Busch going into the Kink.
Road America hosted NASCAR in 1956, a race won by Tim Flock, and was added to the schedule for the second-tier Xfinity Series in 2010.
In 14 total NASCAR national series races at the track, no driver has won more than once.
Although Road America does not divulge attendance figures, the crowd on a hot and sunny day was the largest in decades if not all time.
After celebrating with a spectacular burnout on the narrow front stretch at the start/finish line, Elliott drove to the wide-open runoff area in Turn 5 where he was supposed to have gone. After his television interview, fans there goaded him into another one, and he needed a push to get to victory lane.
"Thank you for spending your Fourth of July with us," he told the crowd. "I hope you enjoyed the show."
Martin Truex Jr.