ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) — Tiptoeing at high speed around a rain-slicked track under the pressure of a two-lap overtime, Brendan Gaughan handed away the lead to Chase Elliott. Then he snatched it right back a few corners later.
He’d still have two more drivers to hold off on the final lap — including a last-ditch charge from Alex Tagliani, the man who appeared to have the race all but won with a little more than a lap left in regulation.
Gaughan already had gone sliding off the track a couple of times earlier. Oh, and his team forgot to bring a windshield wiper to install on his car. Through all that, Gaughan held on to win a rainy and wild NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Road America on Saturday.
“I love racing in the rain,” Gaughan said. “It’s fun. And when you’re good at it, it makes it even more fun. I haven’t smelled blood in a long time. That’s been something I’ve been lacking lately is that killer attitude. When it started to rain, even without the wiper blade, I started to smell blood and said, ‘I’m coming.'”
Gaughan won for the first time in the series, breaking through in his 98th career start.
Tagliani was second, followed by Kevin O’Connell, Elliott and J.J. Yeley as NASCAR drivers got a rare opportunity to race in the rain. It was the third time in Nationwide history that grooved rain tires have been used in a race; the previous two were in Montreal. NASCAR only uses rain tires on winding road courses, not on oval tracks.
The rain added a tense new dimension to racing at Road America, a four-mile road course where the Nationwide Series already had shown an ability to put on a good show.
“As we showed today, you can put on a hell of a race in the rain,” Gaughan said.
After watching his chance to win the race in regulation fizzle out, Tagliani — who was leading when a late caution came out, ran out of gas and refueled his car — nearly charged all the way back to the lead when his crew put him back on slick tires to attack the drying track.
“It was pretty intense,” Tagliani said. “The wet was tricky, but obviously we were good. So I don’t know. Maybe I threw a bad spell on myself because I was saying, ‘It’s impossible that I’m going to win this race. Something’s going to happen.’ On the white flag, something happened.”
Added Gaughan: “(Give) Tagliani one more lap, the track was dry enough that he would have probably got to us. It worked out in our favor.”
It was an impressive finish for Elliott, an 18-year-old rookie and the son of NASCAR icon Bill Elliott. But he wasn’t exactly patting himself on the back after the race. He missed most of Friday’s practice after missing a shift and causing his crew to change engines, briefly slid off the track earlier in Saturday’s race, then felt like the threw away a shot at a win.
“Failure No. 3 on the weekend for me,” Elliott said in a radio interview. “Missed shift yesterday, ran off the track, and then couldn’t get the job done. I’m going to have to step up.”
The race started a little more than an hour late, as NASCAR officials waited for a slightly damp track to dry out; the grooved rain tires are designed to work best in full wet conditions.
Slightly heavier rain then began to fall just before the race’s halfway mark, causing the race to go under caution for a few laps before instructing teams to put on rain tires — resulting in a rare test of NASCAR drivers’ skills in the rain.
“It was ridiculous,” Elliott said. “It really was. It was a handful.”
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