Chase Elliott is one of just two former NASCAR Cup Series champions whose title hopes are still intact in this most unpredictable of seasons. The other is Joey Logano, who clinched his bid for a second Cup crown with a victory last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The time and opportunities for Elliott to join Logano in the Championship 4 field are beginning to narrow, with two races left before elimination arrives for four of the eight drivers left. The season-long goal remains in clear focus for the 2020 champ, whose aspirations of becoming a two-time title winner are within reach.
“I would love to add to it, right,” Elliott said in a Wednesday morning Zoom call. “I mean, look, that’s the goal every year for all of us, is to go out there and achieve that ultimate prize. And we set out to do that every season. That’s what we start our year in hopes of earning. So it’s a grind, it’s a fight, it certainly doesn’t get any easier.”
The next phase in that grind opens this weekend with Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM) at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It’s the middle event in the three-race Round of 8, followed by an Oct. 30 date at Martinsville Speedway to set the final four for the Nov. 6 finale in Phoenix.
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Elliott has some cred as a favorite to reach the Championship 4 for a third straight year, riding a series-best crest of five victories and carrying an advantage in his playoff-points tally as the regular-season champion. The Hendrick Motorsports ace is itching to rebound from a 21st-place finish in Vegas, re-establishing his footing in what’s been a fickle season for the whole field with the Next Gen car’s debut.
“A lot of new challenges this year, and I don’t think anyone’s been immune to inconsistency with this car throughout the season,” Elliott said. “This thing doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve got going on. You can get humbled really fast. And then, on the flip side, we’ve been fortunate enough to have had some good weeks, too. So we’d love to see that inconsistency improve some, just personally speaking from our team side, we want to be better each and every week, not be as hit-or-miss as we’ve been, and I think that’s where our head’s at right now is just trying to make that a little better.
“I think we’re super-capable, I feel like we’ve just gotta get it going at the right times at some of these tracks. And look, we’ve got three really big weeks ahead and some major opportunity out there hanging for the taking.”
Vegas chipped into his playoff-point stockpile, but Elliott still carries a 17-point edge above the provisional elimination line heading to Homestead. That’s one point behind Ross Chastain, the Las Vegas runner-up, and 11 up on veteran Denny Hamlin – the last driver above the cut.
The next two races – 767 laps in total – provide plenty of time for the playoff standings to fluctuate. Elliott says he’s content to let crew chief Alan Gustafson keep the primary tabs on those mid-race ebbs and flows, apprising him of his position when needed.
“I just want to go do my part and be running well and try to put ourselves in position to have a shot to win,” Elliott said. “I mean, if you’re doing that, the points thing is going to take care of itself. That is going to give you the best opportunity to be successful. I definitely let those guys kind of watch it, I guess, if necessary. You hope you don’t need to watch it. You hope you’re just running solid enough all day that you can get some stage points, and if you’re up front getting stage points in the mix to have a shot to win, then that’s the least of your concerns.
“You’re just trying to execute a good day. So that’s really where my head’s always been, and no different now just because we’re plus-whatever, 17. It’d be the same if we were minus-17, or plus-55 or 60. So yeah, just want to try to go run good, and if you’re doing that, the rest will take care of itself.”
Elliott’s history with the 1.5-mile Homestead track has its plusses, with top-15 finishes in all six of his starts there, but his record is also dotted with a measure of deviation in those results. Elliott ran a close second to Hamlin at the South Florida oval two years ago, but a return trip last season netted the No. 9 team a 14th-place outcome.
Eighteen teams took part in a two-day organizational test at Homestead last month, and all eight drivers still eligible in the postseason were among the participants. Elliott said the track time was crucial as the team tries to shape its setup choices for this weekend’s 400-miler and smooth any rough patches.
“Homestead’s been super hit-or-miss, honestly,” Elliott said. “We had a really good run there in 2020, had an opportunity to race Denny for the win, which was great. Never really been in position to have a shot to win there, so that was kind of cool, and went back last year and just was horrendous. So hopefully, we can get back going in the right direction and identify why we struggled last year versus being really solid there the year before, really with no changes year to year. So not great when you have that inconsistency at a track, but hopefully, this weekend is good, and we can put together a good day.”
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Teammate William Byron also remains in the playoff hunt, sitting six points below the cut line and representing Hendrick Motorsports’ only other hope for a Championship 4 slot. Byron has won at both Homestead and Martinsville within the last two years, and he’s also found a bit of stride after an uneven run through the summer months.
The Rick Hendrick-owned group secured two of the four Championship 4 berths for last year’s finale, with Kyle Larson edging out Elliott and Joe Gibbs Racing mates Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. for his first title.
The opportunity to double-dip at Phoenix is present again this year. In terms of how both Hendrick drivers get there, Elliott says the parameters of teamwork are no different now than when the season started back in February.
“From a team perspective, everything is always an open book — from set-ups to driver comments to data and all the above,” Elliott said. “Those things are available when we get to Daytona, and they’re available if all four of us made it to Phoenix. I mean, it wouldn’t be any different. That dynamic, I feel like, is probably as strong if not stronger than it’s ever been in my time of being at HMS, which is a good thing.
“And then as far as the on-track stuff goes, look, I think if you have respect for a peer whether he’s a teammate or not and that that particular peer has respect for you, then I think that racing on track will follow suit of that said respect. And I think that covers all the bases from being teammates to not being teammates, whether you’re friends with a guy or not friends with a guy. I think as long as that respect level is there, you’re going to show it, and I think the other person will, too.”