Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – KANSAS CITY, KS – There were many who believed that once Chase Elliott got his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win, more would follow. Rapidly.
And they were right.
Sure enough, with Elliott securing his second Playoff win – and third victory of the season – at Kansas Speedway on Sunday afternoon, the crowd favorite 22-year old is proving himself a very viable force to be reckoned with. And his timing couldn’t be better with only four races remaining in the Cup championship hunt.
“I felt like as a team we were capable of winning and doing it often,’’ Elliott said after celebrating his win in victory lane. “I felt like I believed in my ability to do so. I believed in my team’s ability, [crew chief] Alan’s [Gustafson] ability, our pit crew, road crew, the whole deal. That’s never really been a question mark in my mind.
“We started the year and we were pretty bad. I felt like pretty off on speed, struggling with handling, trying to get our cars better. I think we’ve been better. I don’t think we are where we want to be, where we need to be, but I think we’re better.
“I think the performance on track has put us in positions to capitalize. That’s been the difference. We’ve just been in position more often. If you can keep putting yourself in position, I think those are great places to be.’’
As is often the case among elite drivers, scoring that first victory is the hard part. But as Elliott has demonstrated, the lift it gives both driver and team is immediate and beneficial. Elliott is averaging a 10.1 place finish in the 11 races since his first win at Watkins Glen, N.Y. this summer. He was averaging a 13.6 place finish in the 21 races before that.
Since that win he has eight top-10 finishes in 11 races, five top-fives and two more victories – both in the Playoffs. In fact his two Playoff wins are the most in the series and he is now ranked fourth in the standings behind only the season’s “Big 3” – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
And Elliott has absolutely held his own against those veterans – all three previous Cup champions.
Taking out the Talladega restrictor plate Playoff race, only the defending Cup champion Truex is averaging a better finish (8.0) in the other opening five Playoff races than Elliott (9.6). Championship points leader Busch is averaging a 10.0 place finish in the five races other than Talladega. Harvick is averaging 11.4.
However, Busch and Harvick are both a series best seven-time winners in 2018. And Truex has won four times.
Still, for all his impressive late season work Elliott insisted Sunday that he feels just as much championship ready now as he did at the beginning of the season.
“The difference has been going through some tougher days, having some learning experiences, making our cars faster, having those learning experiences along with making our car better has meant better results,’’ Elliott said.
“I think we have just as good a shot as anybody and that’s our approach these next three weeks.’’
Up next are races this week at the Martinsville, Va. short track this Sunday, then on to the Texas Motor Speedway 1.5-miler on Nov. 4. The final four championship eligible drivers will be decided after the Nov. 11 Can-Am 500 at Phoenix and they will vie for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18.
Elliott is guardedly optimistic about the upcoming venues. He won his first ever Xfinity Series race at Texas in 2014 en route to claiming the championship, but he said Sunday it is the most challenging of the three tracks to settle the Final Four.
He has led 143 laps total in two of the last three Martinsville Speedway races and has a pair of top-10 finishes in that span. He was ninth this spring and third last spring. At Phoenix, he has four top-10s in five starts. His worse showing was 12th in spring, 2017. He was runner-up in the Playoff race there last year.
“I think my team in particular does a great job of just really paying attention to every detail they can, especially at this time of year,’’ Elliott said. “I give a lot of credit, in my opinion, for picking up performance these last few weeks to Alan [Gustafson].
“I gave him the same credit as last year when we picked up the performance. We had a great run last year. I know it doesn’t seem like it. We had a lot of second place finishes, an opportunity to win a couple of those races that would have put is in a similar position to what we’re in right now.
“That confidence and ability to do that, in my opinion, has been there when things are going for us, when on-track performance is there.
“We just need to keep putting ourselves in the position we were in today, running inside the top three, try to be battling, contending for the race lead. I think opportunities will be there to move forward.’’