Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – Chase Elliott arrives in Phoenix, Arizona needing to overcome a 17-point deficit to advance to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He has an outstanding record at the ISM Raceway one-miler and a track record to be envied – four top-10 finishes in five starts. He was the runner-up to Matt Kenseth in this Playoff race last year.
For the 22-year old Georgia native, the outlook for Sunday’s Can-Am 500 (at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90) is pretty simple, win and he’s in the Championship 4. It’s not a complicated formula and doesn’t require sleepless nights. His No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 team just needs to perform.
And that wouldn’t be any different if Kevin Harvick’s points from winning at Texas Motor Speedway had held up, instead of him being docked 40 points Wednesday after officials found an illegal spoiler on that Texas car.
So the field is closer. Instead of an automatic berth to the title race, with the penalty, Harvick is now only three points ahead of fifth place Kurt Busch. And only Martinsville Speedway winner Joey Logano, has earned a position in the Championship 4.
“Well, someone’s misfortunate shouldn’t be a morale boost for your team first off,” Elliott said when asked about benefitting from Harvick’s penalty.
“Yeah, we are in a position anyway where I feel like we have to win and honestly, that needs to be the mentality anyway, because if you were to make it to Miami next week you are going to have to win down there, so you might as well embrace it and like it and move on.”
Elliott didn’t mince words in his press availability trackside at the new-look ISM Raceway. He insisted his motivation to win was not affected by the points-shuffle as a result of Harvick’s mid-week penalty.
And he also bluntly downplayed any title talk by Logano, who told reporters this week that he should be considered the title favorite based on his Playoff work – a series best 4.2 average finish through the opening eight weeks of the Playoffs. And he is also the top points-earner during that time frame.
“I mean, I don’t really care what he thinks,” Elliott said when asked about Logano’s proclamation.
It’s hard to argue with Elliott’s focus. The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott is having the best season of his three-year Cup career. He scored his first ever Cup victory at Watkins Glen International this summer then answered it with Playoff wins at Dover International Speedway and then Kansas Speedway. He is the winningest Playoff driver in the field this year and comes to a track where he is considered among the best. His average finish of 6.8 in five starts is best on the grid and his driver rating of 110.3 is second only to nine-time Phoenix winner Harvick (110.9).
Since a crash in the Las Vegas Playoff opener, Elliott has finished seventh or better – and won twice – in six of the last seven races. He was seventh at Martinsville two weeks ago and sixth last week at Texas.
And there is some thought that the new track-look is less consequential for the young drivers with fewer starts there anyway. The start/finish line now is near the old Turn 2 and Turns 1 and 2 are now Turns 3 and 4. And vice versa.
The vibe Elliott gave off Friday, was unmistakable. A championship points shuffle? A new track layout? None of it ultimately matters more than being first to the checkered flag on Sunday.
“Yeah, the track to me is the same, which is a good thing, I think this is a great track that we come to,” Elliott said.
And he’s hoping to give them plenty to cheer about when the checkered flag flies.