Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – RICHMOND, VA – It’s been a mixed bag of emotions for NASCAR Playoff driver Chase Elliott this week. He received fantastic news that one of his major corporate sponsors, Hooters, would be re-upping with his Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet team through 2021.
He also arrived at Richmond Raceway on Friday with a more immediate task at hand – righting his 2018 playoff ship.
Elliott, 22, who crashed out and finished 36th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend, shows up at Richmond for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) needing to rally out of a playoff hole.
He sits 9 points behind the cutoff line and ranked 14th with only 12 of the 16 playoff drivers advancing to the next round following next week’s inaugural run on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course.
“Last week obviously sucked,’’ said Elliott, who confirmed he visited a doctor to have his shoulder checked out and was given the medical all-clear.
“Just having probably one of the best 1.5-mile cars that we’ve had all year, we had one of the worst results of the season. So, it’s just the way it goes. And with the way the format is now, stuff happens.
“In that situation, I don’t know what you’d do any differently. We had a solid day going. We were playing catch-up a little bit from a couple of mistakes. Ultimately you limit those mistakes and try not to be behind those guys and you go further forward and hope you miss the melee.
“So, I think it’s going to be wild throughout the next couple of weeks. Obviously, everybody talks about how wild next week [at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course] is going to be, but nobody really knows. It could be the smoothest race ever. Who knows until we get there.’’
What Elliott does know – and so does his competition – is that he is one of the best on Richmond’s three-quarter mile oval. And he couldn’t be more motivated to follow up the worst finish of the season last week with a playoff-worthy performance this week.
Elliott qualified on the outside pole this Spring at Richmond and finished runner-up to Kyle Busch. He has two top-10s in six starts here, has spent 1,000 laps running among the top-10 and boasts the best driver rating (123.1) among his competition – although the third-year Cup driver is adamant he is not one to buy into the merits of a short resume too much. Elliott needs to run well now.
Especially encouraging for him – despite his disappointing finish at Vegas – was how well his Hendrick Motorsports team ran overall – the potential and the optimism.
Even after Elliott (who qualified seventh) was sidelined in Vegas, his playoff-eligible teammates Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman ran among the top-10 for most of the rest of the race. Johnson’s car sustained some damage with a handful of laps remaining and fell from what looked like a certain top-five finish to 22nd. Bowman also had late race issues, but recovered to finish 19th. The team’s other driver, rookie William Byron was in a crash early in the race. The speed was there for all of them, however.
“I thought last week, as a whole, we were probably about as good as we’ve been all year, which was encouraging,’’ Elliott said. “That’s good. That’s only going to help all of us.
“I know that Vegas and Richmond don’t look anything alike, but typically the same guys win every week. Ultimately, they have the fastest cars, or are the best drivers. So, in my mind, I’m thinking I know they’re not very similar, but the same people run good everywhere. So, I think if you’ve made a gain somewhere, it’s probably going to show up here, too.”
The timing couldn’t be better. Elliott is a perfect three-for-three in making the NASCAR Playoffs – with a career best fifth place in the final championship ranking just last year. He earned a career first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory at Watkins Glen, N.Y. last month and has been on a positive trajectory even as his championship Hendrick Motorsports team works through an uncharacteristically challenging season.
The victory last month and the solid performance last week are all good vibes for Elliott, who needs to re-position himself higher in the standings after the Richmond 400-miler.
“We only have nine races left, which is crazy,’’ Elliott said. “I feel like we just started.
“But, I’m just ready to go again. I got on the plane to go home on Sunday after the race and the race is still going on and I’m leaving. I’m just like ‘man, I wish we were lining up to run Richmond, now.’ Like, I don’t want to wait a week. I want to go now and try to fix it. Because ultimately that’s all you can do is wait for the next race and go again.
“Ultimately just try to fix the problem tomorrow night and try to get another sticker.”