Chase Elliott finally did it. After three straight years of a Round of 8 NASCAR Cup Series playoff exit, he found himself in a must win scenario last weekend in Martinsville. He was 25 points below the cut line and if he wanted to avoid a fourth consecutive defeat in the third round of the postseason, then NASCARS Most Popular Driver had to win the Xfinity 500.
He’d do just that and become the first Chevrolet driver in the Championship 4 since 2016. Now can he do something else rare – win two straight races to close out the season?
The odds aren’t on his side to win this weekend. That could affect Elliott’s hopes of winning the championship now too.
The last two years, the winner of the third and final race of the Round of 8, failed to win the championship a week later. In fact, they finished fourth out of the four drivers vying for it at that. You have to go all the way back to the first year of this new format’s existence in 2014 before you can find the one and only time a driver won the final race of the third round and won the season finale one week later to take home the championship.
Is this a factor of putting all of your eggs in one basket for the final race of the third round and not focusing too much ahead to the final race?
I mean, you have to look at this in the sole fact of why focus on Homestead in the past or Phoenix this year, early if you aren’t guaranteed to be competing for a championship there? You have to make it to the Championship 4 first.
Why spend too much time making race cars and dialing in off the truck setups for the season finale if you’re not going to be racing for a championship there? Why not spend all of your waking hours focusing on how to make your race car good for the upcoming race that weekend in order to just win and guarantee your spot into the final round?
By not knowing that you’ll be a part of the final round until the final race of the round before, you’re really behind the eight ball in catching up to Joey Logano that already stamped his way in via a win in the first race of the round.
“Doesn’t hurt,” Logano said of this very exact subject after his win in the first race of this round in Kansas. “I think it means a lot, if I’m being honest. I think it does. I’ve lived this story once where you really just kind of — you’re not last minute trying to throw together a championship car for Phoenix because you’re trying to build so many other ones. It just gives the team time to really start focusing on a car that can put us in the position to win.
“If you only have so much time in the day, you got to prioritize, you’re going to prioritize to get yourself in the Championship 4 first. Now that we did that, we’re going to have 100% of our time to Phoenix.”How much of an advantage does Logano have since he won the 1st race this round?
The winner of the first race of the Round of 8 has won the championship in two of the last four years. They’ve finished second in the other two years in that span. That means Logano will at the very worst finish second in the final standings next weekend.
The winner of the second race, has finished either second or third in each of the last three years. They’re not last, but they didn’t win the title either. The winner of the third race has finished last for two straight years in the final round.
“That’s a really good point,” Elliott told me. “I certainly think that the team that wins that very first race in the Round of 8 and gets locked in, you have more time to think about what car you want to take to the final race, more time to massage on it, so I definitely think that can be a slight advantage. I think that’s a great point. I do think that can be a slight advantage in car selection and time to tweak on those really, really small fine tuning items that can add up to make a difference.
“I can see that being a help.”
But, is this year also different in the sense that we’re using a similar racing package in the final two races of the season in general. Martinsville will feature the 750 horsepower low downforce package. So will Phoenix next week.
From 2014 though 2019, the drivers went through two disciplines of tracks over the final two races in Phoenix (short track) to Homestead (1.5-mile track).
How much of a role does that play in this too?
“I can see momentum playing a role,” Elliott said of winning the last race of the Round of 8 and winning again a week later for a championship. “I can see winning Martinsville being a big momentum booster for that team to propel them to doing a really good job the following week. I think it’s really about how you ride the wave if you’re that team that can win that last race of the Round of 8.
“I definitely think that it’s great that we’re ending the season on two 750 tracks. I’m a bigger fan of that in deciding our champion on the final two races. That has my vote. Not that I get one. But I’m really looking forward to seeing that too.
“Could you potentially take your Martinsville car to Phoenix? You might. That might be a good thing performance wise as well.”
Plus, you don’t know what you don’t know. Elliott, has never been here before. He doesn’t know what to expect. He’s just trying to stay to himself and soak in this experience. He has no time to focus on favorites or not. He doesn’t care. It’s doesn’t matter anyways.
Elliott, has won three races with this horsepower package now. He also has been good at Phoenix in the past too and won the last two cutoff races on the season.
The last time a driver won the Most Popular Driver and the championship in the same season?
His dad, Bill Elliott in 1988. His dad also won the award in 1987 too.
While he may not be the favorite this weekend, he’s just focusing on himself now.
“Think the worst thing we can do is to sit back and worry and watch everybody else,” said Elliott. “I just think we need to focus on ourselves this week and really think about what we struggled with there at the first race this year, what we might need to do to be better, put our best guess on that, go run the race.
“I think if we sit back, start worrying about who is favorite, who is not, who is the underdog, getting everybody running their mouths deal, I’m just not about that. I think it’s unproductive.
“We’re going to worry about ourselves, try to give it our best shot to win.”
NASCAR has been built by hard working and dedicated families like the Frances, Pettys, Jarretts, Earnhardts and this weekend Hendrick Motorsport’s driver Chase Elliott has the chance to add to his family’s legacy and join his NASCAR Hall of Fame father Bill Elliott (1988) as a champion in the highest form of stock car racing – the NASCAR Cup Series.
If Elliott accomplishes the feat the Elliotts (Bill: 1988) would join the Pettys (Lee: 1954, 1958, 1959 and Richard: 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979), and the Jarretts (Ned: 1961, 1965 and Dale: 1999) as just the third father-son combo to win the NASCAR Cup Series title.
Elliott’s talent was apparent early in his career. The Georgia native jumped in the national NASCAR scene in 2013 in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series on a part-time basis, making nine starts and winning at Canadian Tire in just his sixth start. He then climbed up to the NASCAR Xfinity Series with JR Motorsport and became the first rookie in series history to win the series championship in 2014. He ran one more season in Xfinity, finishing runner-up in the points in 2015 before moving up to the NASCAR Cup Series fulltime in 2016. Elliott has qualified for the Playoffs all five seasons he has competed in the NASCAR Cup Series, but this is the first one in which he has a clear shot at the title. Since running fulltime in the series, Elliott has put up 10 wins, 58 top fives and 95 top 10s.
Mr. ‘Most Popular’ is looking to cap off a career season
Hendrick Motorsport’s Chase Elliott is having a career year and not only because he made the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff’s Championship 4 round for the first time, but also because he has racked up four wins on the season – also a career first.
The reigning series Most Popular Driver, Elliott had a slow start to the 2020 season with three finishes outside the top-15 in the first six races, but all that changed when he got to Charlotte. Elliott was strong in both Charlotte oval races, leading 38 laps in the first event and finishing runner-up, but followed that up in the next race by leading 28 laps and winning his first event of the season. The 24-year old then rallied off 10 top-10 finishes and another win at the Charlotte ROVAL to finish out the regular season.
Elliott entered the 2020 Playoffs as the fifth seed with 20 Playoff points to his credit.
Unfortunately, an incident with Martin Truex Jr. for the lead at Darlington relegated him to a 20th-place finish to open the postseason, but Elliott was quick to rebound, finishing fifth at Richmond and seventh at Bristol to advance to the Round of 12. Again, Elliott struggled at the start of the next round, finishing 22nd at Las Vegas but found his momentum at Talladega with a fifth-place finish and secured his spot in the Round of 8 with a win at the Charlotte ROVAL.
Elliott then finished sixth at Kansas and slipped to a 20th-place finish at Texas in the Round of 8. As a result, Elliott was in a precarious position 25 points behind the Championship 4 cutoff heading into the penultimate race of the season at Martinsville Speedway. But the rising star answered the call and won at Martinsville Speedway, becoming the third driver since the inception of the elimination-style format in 2014 to win his way into the Championship 4 round; joining Kevin Harvick in 2014 and Denny Hamlin in 2019. His previous best finish in the final championship standings was fifth in 2017.
Through 35 races this season Chase Elliott has put up four wins, 14 top fives and 21 top 10s. He has led 1,094 laps and has an average finish of 12.0. He also has the second-best season-to-date driver rating (105.3) on the year.