AVONDALE, AZ — A few years ago, the main drawback on Chase Elliott was that he just wasn’t aggressive enough on the race track. Sure, he had a solid start to his NASCAR career, but he failed to close out several solid finishes with race wins. Elliott, made the playoffs in his rookie season in 2016, but failed to win a race despite many opportunities to do so.
He had a vastly improved 2017, but still no win. He did finish fifth in the final standings including five top five finishes over his final eight starts. A win was coming soon, right?
The aggression was still lacking a bit. He started 2018 0-for-21 in the win column. For his Cup career, he was 0-for-98. Would he ever win? He had eight runner-ups, but how many of them did he lose in the end?
Finally, on a bright day at Watkins Glen in Aug. 2018, the winless streak ended. The second generation driver finally got over the hump with a victory at Watkins Glen. No more letting race wins get away. A victory was his to be had.
He’d win again seven starts later in Dover. Now, Elliott was rolling. Two races later, he won again at Kansas. From 0-for-98 to three wins in an 11 race span. He closed 2018 with seven top seven finishes in his final nine starts. It was his second straight time he was eliminated from championship contention in the Round of 8 though.
2019 was supposed to be the year now, right? Finally getting to victory lane and doing so now in bunches. Three straight playoff appearances, two of them consecutively in the Round of 8. A Championship 4 was on the horizon wasn’t it?
Elliott, had a solid season with an early win in the spring of that year in Talladega. He’d only win two more times though, both on road courses. He faltered late now with finishes of 36th, 32nd and 39th in the Round of 8. A third straight Round of 8 elimination ensued.
For 2020 though, it was a new Elliott. The aggression that we’ve yet to fully see out of him was here. He wasn’t afraid to mix it up. He got into it with Kyle Busch at Darlington back in May. A week later, he was getting into it with Joey Logano when he was overly aggressive going for a win on May 31 at Bristol. He tangled with Martin Truex Jr. at Darlington over Labor Day weekend. Elliott, was ready to put up a fight for a championship.
A few days after the Busch tangle to where he should have won at Darlington 2, a fluke caution came out at the end of the Coca-Cola 600 while he was leading in the final laps. He had to pit and finished second. He rebounded to win the return trip to Charlotte a few days later. He mixed it up with Logano seven days after that.
This was the Elliott that was needed to become a true star in NASCAR. Yes, he was the Most Popular Driver, but if he wanted to truly capitalize on that and win championships, this driving was what was needed.
He won the All-Star race in July. He didn’t freak out when the speed in his car that they had earlier in the season suddenly went away through the summer months.
He won on the Daytona road course in August to set this thing in motion again. Elliott, was fifth in Dover 1 and second in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 to close out the regular season. The playoffs started with what should have been a win in the Southern 500. He made a mistake by changing his line with 14 laps left of that race and allowing Truex Jr. to catch him for the lead. The two crashed while battling for the win. He was fifth in Richmond and seventh in Bristol to advance to the Round of 12.
In the second round, this is when Elliott truly showed us just how clutch he’d become. Elliott, won in walkoff fashion on the Charlotte ROVAL to advance to the Round of 8. In that third round, Elliott entered the final race 25 points behind the final spot to the Championship 4. He had to win. Would he have a fourth straight year of missing out on the final round?
Not this time. Elliott, led the most laps and dominated at Martinsville to win the race and stamp his name into the Championship 4 for the first time of his young career. Then, in Phoenix, he was supposed to start on the pole but his car failed pre race inspection twice. Instead of coming from first, he started last.
That didn’t faze him.
Elliott, in true clutch fashion, came from last to win and yet again led the most laps in leading 153 of the 312 laps turned on Sunday afternoon at the Phoenix Raceway. He passed Logano with 44 laps left for his first career championship in becoming just the third youngest champion ever in NASCAR’s premiere series.
A few years ago, it was Elliott who was getting passed with 44 to go to not win the race. Now, it was him doing the passing as he’s showing that a star was being born.
“I think for us it’s kind of been getting over the hump in those big moments, something that we’ve done an okay job of at times but not something we’ve been able to do with authority,” Elliott said.
“I really thought performing like we did last week at Martinsville was a really big deal. And then performing like we did today I thought was a really big deal. Finding that groove and finding that comfort in those big moments I think is huge.
“That’s something that we can take this and grow from further. I’m really excited about that, and I’m really proud of my team for stepping up in big situations and getting it done.”
There were four cutoff races in the playoffs, Elliott won three of them – the final three at that. Those are the most clutch and important ones to do so as the pressure grows for each and everyone of them.
“I feel like we just put a lot of emphasis on the things that matter and really just didn’t care about anything else,” Elliott said of this new outlook that they showed. “There’s just so much distraction in the world. Everybody is tied to their phones and you can get ahold of anybody at any time. There’s just so many things from the outside that can reach someone.
“That’s one thing that I felt like our whole team just did a better job of was just boiling it down to the things that matter. Ultimately it’s how good of a job did we do building that car, how prepared am I coming into a race weekend and how do we execute it.
“I feel like those three things we put more emphasis on than we ever have. I feel like I was mentally locked in better than I’ve ever been. And yeah, I think the results showed.”
Elliott, was the walkoff king in 2020 and should propel him to a further star in the near future. This could be the start of what should be many champions to become. He’s just 24 years old and has already won 11 times and one championship.