Chase Elliott regaining stride as NASCAR’s Playoffs loom

Chase Elliott climbed out of his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Sunday afternoon after a hard-earned win on the Watkins Glen International road course and with a huge smile and wave immediately offered an apology for not being able to do a proper victory lap for the adoring and boisterous grandstand crowd. His car had run out of gas.

With the win – his second of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season and fifth of his young career – the 23-year old Elliott’s performance went a long way to answering any doubters who felt that Elliott and/or his team had perhaps run out of gas, after a frustrating summer swing. Instead, on Sunday, the No. 9 team proved itself poised for a bigger victory celebration – perhaps a championship burnout.

The most dominating win of his young career was a resounding reminder that Elliott is ready to step up his game as the Playoffs approach. This weekend at Watkins Glen, he won the pole position, led 80 of 90 laps and picked up both stage victories along the way to the trophy hoist.

In doing so, Elliott became only the fifth driver in NASCAR history to win back-to-back races at the historic venue – and significantly, the list he joins includes three NASCAR Hall of Famers in Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and one of the sport’s all-time best road course drivers Marcos Ambrose.

It’s all placed Elliott in a good position as the series heads to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“We’ve never done this as a team,” said Elliott, who is eighth in the championship, now only three points behind seventh place Kurt Busch. “This was the first time we’ve ever gone somewhere and sat on the pole and led the most laps and won the race. I’ve never done that in my career and I’m sure [crew chef] Alan [Gustafson] has at some point, but as a group, we’ve never done that.

“I just feel like that, to me, the biggest piece of the whole weekend, was just knowing that we’re the type of team and the caliber of team that can go and put on those kind of performances. And those are the kind of performances you have to put on to compete with those guys that win often.

“We just need to go do that more often and I think at the end, we can run with them.”

The victory was beyond a summer “pick-me-up” for Elliott and his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team. It was more of a jolt. And that’s exactly what they needed.

After winning at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in May, Elliott has been in a bit of a tailspin. His last top-10 result prior to Sunday’s race was at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in June – eight races ago. During that tough stretch he suffered a 37th-place finish at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway – the first road course of the year – and just last weekend at the second Pocono race, Elliott had his worst result of the season – a 38th-place finish after an accident sidelined him.

This convincing victory on Sunday is more than a trophy feel-good moment, it was reassurance that the team is ready to rally and challenge again for its first season championship. That it deserves to be considered a perennial contender.

“Those Playoff points are huge and I think that’s the key to those guys and the advantage that those guys have, the guys that have four or five wins already,” Elliott said. “They have probably double as many Playoff points as we do.

“You know, those guys that have won often and won that much, they’re just about a lock for Homestead. Almost. They have a heck of a lot of help to get them there. That’s the kind of position you want to put yourself in before the final ten (Playoff races) for sure.”

Those final 10 Playoff venues –  Las Vegas, Richmond, Charlotte ROVAL, Dover, Talladega, Kansas, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead – line up well for Elliott.

He won at Talladega already this season and is the defending Playoff race winner at Dover, where he won the pole position and led a race best 145 laps in a fifth-place finish earlier this year.

Elliott finished runner-up at Martinsville in March, leading 49 laps. Texas has always been a sentimental favorite as well, home to his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win – in 2014 en route to the Xfinity Series championship. He was 13th there this year and led 35 laps.

Elliott had top-10 finishes at Vegas (ninth) and Kansas (fourth) on the schedule’s first stop of 2019 and is the defending winner of the Kansas Playoff race as well. At the ROVAL debut last year, Elliott started fourth and finished sixth.

“Our speed has been decent, we just have not executed the races for mechanicals or crashes or different issues,” Gustafson said. “That’s the biggest thing I wanted to do this weekend is perform to the potential of the team and the car and get back on track. And certainly, we did that in style, which was fantastic. But yeah, we needed to get out of that rut, to get back on track and get focused on competing and improving and get some confidence back.

“It [the win] couldn’t come at a better time and certainly these things come and go,” Gustafson reiterated. “It happens to everybody, I think and you can use those last weeks that we had to kind of reflect on what we could do better and improve and I feel like we’ve done that.

“So all in all, it certainly hurt us in the points, but I think it’s probably going to make our team a bit stronger.”