Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – Truth be told, Chase Elliott says he was already over a tough Playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway and looking ahead to this week’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) by the time the checkered flag flew on the Texas high banks last Sunday.
A single car accident only nine laps into the race relegated Elliott to a 32nd-place finish. The week before a mechanical issue with his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet left him 36th in the final order. And now Elliott enters the final race of this Playoff round 78 points behind fourth place Joey Logano in the championship standings – making Sunday’s race a must-win situation at the Phoenix one-miler for a shot in the Championship 4 next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And as disappointed and frustrated as Elliott may have been last Sunday in Texas, he appeared very much up for the tall task this week, calm and thoughtful while speaking with reporters at ISM Raceway.
“I had 475 miles to think about it last week,” Elliott said, shaking his head. “I deserved that really – to ride around 475 miles and think about it. And I’d say by lap 400 I was pretty much over it and thinking about Phoenix. I was cruising around just thinking about what we needed to do to be better (at Phoenix). Obviously we were just in a position we needed to finish. My mindset had moved on.
“At the time, that’s about all I could do. I’m glad I was able to do that. I’m not dwelling on last week. We still have an opportunity ahead right here and right now and we either make the most of it or we don’t.”
Looking ahead to the final regular season race at the historical track in the desert, had to have given Elliott something positive to take his mind off things.
The 23-year old Elliott has an average finish of 11.3 in the three ISM Raceway Playoff races he’s competed in, including a career best showing at the track of runner-up in the 2017 edition. He answered that with a third-place showing in the 2018 Spring race.
In all, Elliott has four top-10 finishes in seven starts. He sat on the outside pole and led a personal best 106 laps in the 2017 Spring race finishing 12th.
Elliott, a three-race winner this year, realizes the odds may be against him. But he has battled through a tough Playoff round already this year – rallying to a runner-up finish at Kansas Speedway in the Round of 12’s final race. It was just enough to advance him to the Round of 8 and give him opportunity to try and make his career first Championship 4.
“We were in a tough spot in that second round too, so it’s definitely not where you want to be in any means, but I do think we still have a chance this weekend,” Elliott said. “I feel like our team has worked really hard to get us this far. We could have very easily not made it past Kansas and been out then.
“There’s three races in every round for a reason and you just can’t let those first two weeks affect your mindset, your approach, your aggressiveness and your will to want to win in this last opportunity,” Elliott continued.
Certainly it’s been a boomerang of a Playoffs for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 2018 Most Popular Driver. Through the first eight races, Elliott has four top-10 finishes, highlighted by a win at the Charlotte ROVAL. He also has three finishes of 32nd or worse.
As a whole, he’s turned in a career season. He tied his previous best season’s win total (2018: three wins), and has earned four poles this year also a career-best feat.
Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team has shown the ability to rebound all season. After a 38th-place finish at Pocono Raceway this summer, he won the very next week at Watkins Glen International. Then after a second 38th-place finish – at Dover International Speedway – Elliott won the pole position at Talladega and finished eighth.
Known for being his own worst critic, Elliott instead seemed especially motivated on Friday – ready to turn this season into a championship opportunity.
“We still have an entire race on Sunday,” Elliott reiterated. “I think you have to make sure you keep that in mind. It can definitely be challenging to look and say, “I crashed on lap eight last week’ and that’s not good obviously.
“But you just have to approach this week as a new one and know if we win on Sunday, we can race again next week and have a shot at the title.
“It’s just not over until it’s over.”
Since the inception of the elimination-style Playoffs in 2014, Kevin Harvick is the only driver to race his way from the eighth position in the standings into the Championship 4 with a win at Phoenix. Harvick went on to win that 2014 championship a week later.