Chase Elliott has been here before.
NASCAR’s most popular driver has made the playoffs in each of his five seasons, but has run into a roadblock into the Round of 8 in each of the past three years, and is still seeking his first appearance in the championship race.
In 2017, Elliott was two laps away from winning at Martinsville to advance into Homestead but was derailed by Denny Hamlin in the form of an aggressive shove from behind. Elliott was leading at Phoenix inside 10 laps to go two weeks later but denied by Matt Kenseth, who wasn’t even championship eligible.
He was again eliminated at Phoenix in 2018.
Last year, Elliott wrecked out of Phoenix early and would not factor into the ever-evolving points landscape over the remainder of the race, his championship hopes once again dashed at Phoenix.
Now Phoenix is the championship race and Elliott hopes to make it there to face the ultimate win at all cost scenario, if he can just overcome the pesky Round of 8.
He enters Kansas, Texas and Martinsville on the inside of the playoff cutoff, five points ahead of 2018 champion Joey Logano, but knows an untimely incident or a surprise winner below him could once again end his season short of the goal.
Elliott doesn’t have to win in this round and likely advances if he can just climb to second or third in points, and doesn’t believe there is anything preventing his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team from doing just that.
After all, Elliott has won three times this season, including on an intermediate (Charlotte) in addition to his road course wins at Daytona and the Charlotte Roval. His 12.3 average finish is fifth-best in the Cup Series.
“For us, we’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel,” Elliott said. “That’s number one. I think another thing that we don’t want to do is to get too far off the beaten path.
“I feel like for us, when we’ve been at our best and as a team, myself included, performing at the level that we’re all capable of doing, I feel like we’ve contended with the best of the series this year, in my personal opinion, and, I think we’re capable of doing that again.
“So, from my situation, I’m just trying to sit back and trying to do exactly that; and trying to perform at the level I know we can. And I think if we perform at that kind of level, I think that we can move on and give ourselves a shot. So, I’m just trying not to get tricked or smart or reinvent things, I think, is the best way to move on.”
That Elliott has won three times in each of the past three seasons but failed to reach the final four is an easy narrative, and one that the driver hears often.
But there isn’t some lever that Elliott simply has to pull to make it happen. Racing is one half performance, but also circumstance, and fortune has worked against the 24-year-old more often than not.
He doesn’t feel any extra external pressure to win a championship that isn’t inherent to his own desire – no matter how often he is asked.
“Personally, and as a team, there’s nothing anybody outside of myself or my team is going to say to me to make me want to win a championship more,” Elliott said. “So, that should answer that.”
Elliott finished 12th at both Kansas and Texas earlier this year and said after winning at the Roval on Sunday that “12th isn’t going to cut it.” He feels good about starting Kansas on the right foot but also expects Texas to be the race that defines his round purely on the basis of performance.
“Well Texas has been a struggle, as you all know, for us, since the repave, so, that one for sure, sticks out,” Elliott said “I’m not thrilled about going there. But the people who win a lot of races and win championships don’t have bad racetracks and that’s just a fact.
“Kevin (Harvick) and Denny (Hamlin) and those guys who have been winning all these races this year, they can win about every week. So that’s kind of where we need to get to. And I think that’s been where I feel like some of our issues have been over the years is just a little inconsistency.
“And I think cleaning up those bad racetracks is a thing that we have to do. And it’s something I think we’re capable of doing; we’ve just got to hit on something there at Texas and eliminate bad tracks and I think we’ll be fine.”
And even though Harvick and Hamlin are the clear 1a and 1b of the 2020 season, that doesn’t matter when it comes down to a one race, best finisher of the final four takes the championship, so Elliott just needs to maintain his spot inside the upper half of the playoff grid and hope someone in the bottom half doesn’t win their way in.
Elliott has a championship pedigree, even if wasn’t alive to see his dad’s championship in 1988. He’s grown up in the sport and seen how it treats his dad with reverence and respect.
Elliott knows a championship would change his perception forever, but he hasn’t fully allowed himself to embrace how that would personally resonate for him.
“I don’t necessarily know how I feel about it, because when you’re on the hunt for one or you’ve never done it before, I’m not sure I’m thinking about the validation it’s going to give me on the back side,” Elliott said. “I think I’m really just thinking about that being the goal and that being what I want to achieve and being that next step or the next thing that our team wants to go and have a shot at trying to make the final four.
“So, I’m not sure.
“I feel like that’s something you kind of reflect on after you do something like that. I’m not sure you really know what it feels like or what validation it might give you internally unless you’ve achieved it; which I obviously have not.”
First step’s first: Reaching the championship race and breaking through past the Round of 8.
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