NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott is arguably the face of NASCAR. After breaking his Round of 8 curse, he’s ready to compete for a title to match his father’s.

Chase Elliott has literally driven a championship-winning machine during the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series postseason. In the opening at Darlington Raceway, Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet aesthetically resembled the vehicle his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson drove to the fourth of his record seven NASCAR titles. As the season ends at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC), Elliott’s traditionally blue numeral will don shades of yellow in tribute to the numbers that Johnson has represented on the Cup circuit since 2002.

As one championship era ends at Phoenix, another could potentially begin. Sunday will mark the final race of Johnson’s legendary career. A future in IndyCar Racing awaits him, as does de facto instant entry to NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte as soon as he’s eligible. The duel in the desert also marks the first race that can potentially end with Elliott hoisting the Cup Series’ trophy in victory lane.

Set to turn 25 in three weeks, Elliott’s NASCAR resume to date is one that many older drivers would give an arm and a leg for. He has earned 10 Cup Series victories, sat on the pole for a pair of Daytona 500s, won at historic Darlington Raceway at a mere 18 years old, took home the latest All-Star Race, won a Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series championship, and has developed a niche for road courses, winning the last four events at such tracks (a mark bested only by Jeff Gordon). Elliott is also the two-time defending winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, breaking the 15-year stranglehold the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. held on the title.

“I don’t know because I’ve never done it,” Elliott said in the leadup to Phoenix earlier this week when asked if he ever reflected on his legacy. “I hate to say that, but I just don’t. I think it’s one of those things where you don’t know. I don’t know what (a Cup Series title) feels like or the emotions of it or what it would bring or wouldn’t bring or whatever because I’ve never achieved that before.”

“I just think to be thinking about those things and not the things that are going to make our car go fast on Sunday is just the wrong, in my opinion, my approach right now, is the wrong thing. I’m just all eyes. My mindset and focus is what is going to make you go fast. That is what matters on Sunday. That is going to be the thing that either gives you a chance or doesn’t. The rest of it right now just doesn’t matter. That’s where I’m at.”

Elliott’s success makes it almost a shame that his career is forever connected to legends of the sport. He’s been teammates with the semi-retiring Johnson since 2015 and raced for Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide/Xfinity Series team (winning the aforementioned title in 2014). Of course, the first thing many know about Elliott is that he’s the son of Bill, a winner of 45 races on NASCAR’s national levels, the 1988 Cup title, and 16 Most Popular Driver titles.

“I’m very lucky. My dad obviously has had great success over the years, has been around this deal for a long time. Obviously, Jimmie is a great one to lean on, too,” Elliott said of the mentorship and help he has had over his career. “The big thing from talking to dad that I feel like he’s kind of mentioned is to just enjoy these moments because these aren’t things you can take for granted. You don’t know when your last race win is. You don’t what tomorrow brings. Nothing’s guaranteed, right?”

Elliott has more or less shut down the idea that nepotism earned him a ride at one of auto racing’s most iconic organizations with his performance on the track. The ultimate sign of perseverance gained throughout his time on the Cup asphalt perhaps came in the Round of 8’s finale at Martinsville last week. This de facto semifinal round had often served as a thorn in Elliott’s side, an impenetrable barrier to the status of a legend. But he not only led 236 of 500 laps in last weekend’s Xfinity 500, but both he and his team also overcame what could’ve been a disastrous visit to pit road to recover for a win. The No. 9’s jackman was initially penalized for jumping over the wall too soon, but his quick reset and the team’s appeal caused NASCAR to rescind the penalty. Elliott would take care of the rest, leaving pit road fourth and later passing fellow go-or-go-home racer Martin Truex Jr. for the lead with 44 to go.

No one could rationally fault Elliott for not earning a Cup Series title just yet. Some of the biggest young phenoms in the sport have struggled to get off to a fast start on the stat sheet…some never find it at all. Countless wunderkinds have been labeled “The Next Jeff Gordon” before fading away into racing oblivion. Elliott maintained early consistency, but it took more than two full seasons to earn his first Cup Series victory, finally doing so near the Finger Lakes at the Watkins Glen event in 2018. Being attached to so many legends of the sport only raised the temperature of Elliott’s pressure cooker.

Even in preparing for his first title, Elliott dealt with questions of the past. Irony has lingered over the No. 9’s pit box all weekend. Not only did Bill capture his Cup title in the same number, but it was a championship won alongside the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers…each of whom took care of their end of the bargain in the World Series and NBA Finals respectively.

Elliott is more than likely used to these questions and has adapted by smiling and taking them in stride. He was impressed with the Los Angeles championship connection, even if it meant the Dodgers eliminating his beloved Atlanta Braves en route.

Yet, he has refused to fully comment on the coincidence…if only because he hasn’t earned one of his own just yet.

“I feel like it’s so hard. I just remember getting the question of, What is it going to feel like when you win that first race? What is that going to be like? How cool is that going to be to you?” he said.

“I always had a really hard time answering that because I’d never done it before. So I don’t know. I think that’s the same answer now. Until you achieve a moment like that, that obviously is very meaningful to you, I think it’s really hard to put a stamp of what it means or how it feels or the emotions that come with it. I think I’d be speaking out of turn to really give you an answer because I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Elliott has spent his career becoming his own racer, writing his own legend. It’s partially why he hasn’t leaned on the seven-time Johnson for advice in working through championship weekend, though he did take time to acknowledge Johnson’s footprint on the sport by calling him a “champion on and off the track”.

Even if Elliott comes up short on Sunday, he has a bit of a failsafe comeback in that there will probably be plenty of opportunities for him to have another go at it. But if he’s unwilling to use his racing tree as an excuse or a crutch, you can guarantee he won’t be using youth. Elliott is all too aware that his first trip to the final four could well be his last.

“You don’t know. Hell, I don’t know what tomorrow is. I don’t think anybody does,” Elliott said. “To sit here and promise myself things that I can’t promise myself, I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball, right?

“I do know this is a moment you have to enjoy because you don’t know with your last race win is, you don’t know when your last day is, when the last Championship 4 is for you, all of the above. I’m just trying to enjoy the whole moment and make the most of whatever Sunday brings, put all the emphasis and preparation in the things that are going to give us the best chance on Sunday. To me, that’s my preparation for certain situations and probably most importantly the right decisions on the car to get our car balance as close as we can to start the race. All my emphasis is there, and just trying to enjoy and embrace this time, make the most of it.”

There are few guarantees on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit. Chase Elliott not looking for a crutch and an excuse has provent to be a rare exception on the asphalt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Brad Keselowski

Brad Keselowski, Nascar

The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion is pulling out all the stops when it comes to earning an elusive second title.

Every working American knows what it’s like to crack open a celebratory cold one after a long, successful day at work. The suds may taste even sweeter when the beermaker more or less pays you to be seen representing their product.

Brad Keselowski perhaps provided the ultimate example of the after-hours refreshment back in 2012. It was Keselowski’s second season in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, which has enjoyed consistent sponsorship from the Miller Brewing Company, primarily its Miller Lite beverage, for decades. Shortly after a 15th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway allowed him to clinch what was then the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, Keselowski emerged from the machine often referred to as the “Blue Deuce” and was immediately poured a great tasting, less filling Miller Lite in a tall, branded glass. The jubilant Keselowski quickly downed his beverage minutes before an interview on ESPN’s SportsCenter and continued to drink while speaking to anchor Kevin Connors, admitting right from the start that he “had a little buzz”.

Keselowski has come close to a second title in the years since. Since elimination rounds were introduced in 2014, the No. 2 has twice been amongst the four drivers eligible for a championship at the season finale, including his third-place posting last season. A second championship, however, has proved elusive. The team is back in 2020’s contending quartet, who will fight for the Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway for the first time in the track’s history on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). To make sure there’s another frosty brew awaiting him at the end, the Keselowski family is taking matters into their own hands.

Speaking to reporters in the leadup to the Season Finale 500, Keselowski mentioned that he’s packing light for Phoenix, especially in the age of an ongoing health crisis. But with families invited to partake in the championship finale, Keselowski’s wife Paige is bringing over a special memento: the glass.

Keselowski is eager to leave the past in the past, but mentioned that Paige found the supposed Holy Grail in their home. But the glass sipped from on a South Beach evening eight years ago still had beer leftover in it…beer older than his daughters Scarlett and Autumn combined.

“My wife has told me that she will prepare the glass as long as I promise to drink responsibly,” Keselowski said with a smile. “Those people that know me know that I like to leave things as they were, meaning that we located the glass from 2012. It still had beer in it a little bit on the bottom. Needless to say, that was not a pleasant sight, but it was authentic, so my wife is cleaning it as we speak, she’s going to wrap it up, put it in a nice bubble-wrapped box, and hopefully we’ll be getting it out Sunday night.”

Keselowski comes to the desert with momentum on his side. His playoff slate got off to a strong start with a win at Richmond in the second race of the postseason decalogue, a win that earned him automatic entry to the second round. Four consecutive finishes outside the top ten followed, placing him in a precarious position, though he did manage to reach the Round of 8 semifinals.

After finishing fourth at Kansas and sixth at Texas, Keselowski held a healthy 25-point lead over the cutoff at the onset of the Martinsville event to close things out. But with win-or-go-home contender Chase Elliott dominating the affair, Keselowski got caught up in a three-way battle for two spots…his adversaries being Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, the faces of 2020 with a combined 16 wins over the first 34 races.

Keselowski earned four wins, the driver immediately behind Hamlin and Harvick in that stat category. Yet their dominance overshadowed what was an impressive season, even by former Cup champion standards. His four wins and 23 top-ten finishes were his best since 2016, a season marred by a brutal showing in the Round of 12. In that season, Keselowski was a mainstay in the front row of the series standings, but a crash at Kansas and engine woes at Talladega doomed his title case. Two years prior, Keselowski had won a circuit-best six races but a gear problem at the first semifinal race..then held at Martinsville…doomed him from the start.

Playoff demons threatened to rise again at the Virginia-based short track last week. With less than 100 laps remaining, Keselowski had to go to the rear of the field when he was caught speeding off pit road. But he managed to work his way past both Hamlin and Harvick to earn a fourth-place finish, one that left him a handful of points ahead of the eliminated Harvick.

Keselowski knew about the heartbreak of playoff defeat and even said he felt sympathy for Harvick. But he was proud of the way his team rallied to clinch a final spot, a team effort headlined by the help of first-year crew chief Jeremy Bullins. This union was established by a game of Silly Season musical chairs, one that saw Bullins make his way over from his Penske neighbors at the No. 12 stall of Ryan Blaney. Keselowski and Bullins previously united for 46 races on the Nationwide/Xfinity Series circuit, winning 14 of them.

“I think probably the biggest thing I took out of the last round was from Martinsville itself,” Keselowski said in Round of 8 reflection. “I tried my best to treat Martinsville as though it was Phoenix. In that sense, it was a cutoff race, points were really close. I think I was only a few points behind Denny Hamlin, and I knew if I beat Denny Hamlin in points I would be okay to move on to next week, which was ultimately going to come down to stage points and the finish where this week is just the finish. Ultimately I treated the race weekend as though I was in Phoenix competing for the championship.”

“It felt a little bit like a dress rehearsal, and certainly learned a few things about me. I learned probably be careful on pit road towards the end of the race and don’t let your aggressiveness get to you, and beyond that, the resiliency that this team has to keep pushing when it counts.”

Keselowski certainly knows a thing or two about performing in big moments. His first Cup Series win came when he was driving a low-budget car for now-defunct Phoenix Racing in 2009, a year before he dominated the following year’s NASCAR Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series circuit, beating out established Cup star Carl Edwards by over 400 points for the victory. It’s part of a mental resiliency that Keselowski acknowledges is a major part of the championship formula.

“A large part of being a race car driver is mental. It’s the approach, the preparation, it’s the resiliency,” he said. “Those are mental things that manifest themselves into physical results. It’s hard for me to comment on any other driver’s preparation. I’ve got enough to prepare myself, let alone to critique against anyone else’s preparation, but I know that I feel good about it.”

Despite these championship traits, it feels like Keselowski continues to slip under the radar, the finale conversations dominated by contending companions Elliott (two-time winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award), Hamlin (seeking his first title in 16 seasons), and his Penske teammate Joey Logano (a fellow former champion with a penchant for aggressive driving). It’s given him a slight underdog status he could potentially capitalize on.

Keselowski, however, defies the trope of bulletin board material, seeking to race only for competition and championship purposes…not because someone was doubting him, or because there’s an ice-cold, extra-large beer waiting for him in victory lane.

“I don’t really need external motivation, to be honest, and I really don’t feed off of it. I enjoy it when people have confidence in me. Certainly, that’s a pleasurable thing to experience, but it’s not motivating to me. What’s motivating to me is usually, like I said, looking at my family’s faces and knowing how excited they are to get to go to Phoenix, and that’s motivating to me. My team and seeing them work so hard and knowing that their heart is in a great place, that’s motivating to me. I think that’s probably where I take the motivation from.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Glover Teixeira forces Thiago Santos to tap at UFC Vegas 13

Anthony Smith, UFC

Tonight, the UFC returned for their 13th Fight Night inside the APEX. In the main event of the evening, the promotion had a big-time matchup in the light heavyweight division as Thiago Santos (21-7) took on Glover Teixeira (31-7).

Both of these men were looking to take another step towards another shot at UFC gold. Originally, this fight was supposed to be a title eliminator. However, the UFC recently announced that Israel Adesanya would be getting the next shot at light heavyweight champion, Jan Blachowicz.

Nevertheless, this was still a big matchup for the pecking order at light heavyweight. We hadn’t seen Santos since his loss to Jon Jones. That night, Santos proved he was one of the best in the world. The 41 year old Glover Teixeira was looking for his fifth straight UFC victory.

Opening Rounds

As the UFC Vegas 13 main event got underway, Santos immediately looked to utilize his kicks. Santos winged some big power shots in the opening minute, but nothing was landing. However, out of nowhere, a massive combination wobbled Teixeira badly.

Santos followed up with some serious shots, but Teixeira hung tough. Teixeira created a scramble and was able to take Santos to the ground. Santos worked his way back up, but Teixeira slammed Santos back down and transitioned right to the mount.

Teixeira started to throw some serious ground and pound, but Santos was able to get back to half guard. The top pressure was sensational for Teixeira. After a really rocky start, a dominant close to the round gives the first to Glover Teixeira.

To start the second round, Santos opened with a couple of strong kicks. However, Teixeira shot in deep for a double leg and took Santos right back down. Teixeira landed a couple of really good shots as he looked to pass Santos’ guard.

Halfway through the round, Teixeira really started to tee off with massive elbows. Santos appeared a little overwhelmed in his UFC return. Teixeira was able to get to side control with a minute left in the second round. Teixeira locked in a deep rear naked choke, but the bell ended the round before Teixeira could finish it.

Five straight UFC wins

As the third round started, Teixeira immediately shot in for another takedown. However, Santos was able to defend well. Santos dropped Teixeira out of no where with a massive left hook. Santos followed up with some massive shots.

Teixeira pulled Santos into his guard and looked to recover. Santos started teeing off with massive elbow, but he lost the leverage. Teixeira pushed Santos against the fence and took him back down. Santos looked extremely gassed and Teixeira took his back.

It didn’t take long from there. Teixeira was able to lock in the rear naked choke once again. Santos was forced to tap and Glover Teixeira has won his fifth straight in the UFC‘s light heavyweight division.