NASCAR: Chase Elliott prepares for a fateful Round of 8

Geoff Magliocchetti
Oct 11, 2020; Concord, North Carolina, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Chase Elliott (9) celebrates after winning the Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Chase Elliott has accomplished a lot in his NASCAR career, but the next three races could help him take a career-changing step forward.

Chase Elliott wore a hat while speaking with the media on Thursday afternoon. That’s obviously not out of the ordinary when it comes to NASCAR driver availability, but Elliott’s headwear bore not one of his sponsors, but rather the curvy “A” of MLB’s Atlanta Braves. It makes all the sense in the world, considering his Dawsonville, Georgia roots.

“I enjoy watching the sport. Obviously, I’m a Braves fan and they have a game today, and that’s why I’m wearing the hat,” Elliott said with a smile about his hat. He jokingly tried to connect the hat to a sponsor that regularly graces his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “To be honest with you, I forgot I had this media availability today…but I’m sponsored by NAPA.”

The Braves would go on to top the Los Angeles Dodgers 10-2 in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, giving them a 3-1 series lead. Elliott and his Braves are in remarkably similar situations…with one more win over three opportunities, they can each earn a chance to play for their respective sport’s ultimate prize.

Bolstered by young talent, both the Braves and the No. 9 team have accomplished much in their respective fields. Atlanta has taken home each of the last three NL East division titles, and Elliott has reached the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in all five of his full-time season. But the final hurdle has proved difficult. One more win for the Braves would send them to their first World Series since 1999. Elliott, meanwhile, is battling to escape from the Round of 8.

The No. 9 is one of eight vehicles left in contention for the 2020 Cup Series title. A 16-driver playoff field has been split in half in time for the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC). The next three races will determine the four-driver championship field at Phoenix Raceway. Playoff drivers who win one of the next three races get an automatic invite to the title push in the desert.

Elliot, the son of 1988 Cup Series champion Bill, has been in a must-win situation at Phoenix on three occasions…when Phoenix hosted the penultimate race of the year and served as the Round of 8’s finale. Heartbreak has followed each time. In 2017, he was passed for the lead by Matt Kenseth with 10 laps to go, denying him the automatic championship entry. Last season saw him wreck in the early stages. Bad luck, often in the form of wrecks beyond his control, forced him into such dire set-ups. Elliott would be the last driver in contention at Phoenix if the Round of 8 was skipped over, but he’s only five points ahead of fifth-place Joey Logano.

He’s not going to let Round of 8 yips of the past affect his approach in 2020.

“For us, we’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel. That’s number one,” he said. “I think another thing that we don’t want to do is to get too far off the beaten path. I feel like, for us, when we’ve been at our best and as a team, myself included, performing at the level that we’re all capable of doing, I feel like we’ve contended with the best of the series this year, in my personal opinion. And, I think we’re capable of doing that again. So, from my situation, I’m just trying to sit back and trying to do exactly that; and trying to perform at the level I know we can.”

By this point, labeling Elliott’s success as the product of nepotism is foolhardy. Elliott has nine wins over the past three seasons and has established himself as NASCAR’s new king of road courses. Last Sunday’s win at the Charlotte Motor Speedway “Roval” (half-oval, half-road course) was his fourth straight on such set-ups. Only series legend Jeff Gordon has eclipsed that mark (6). Further accolades include the most recent All-Star Race and the 2014 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series title…two before he took over Hendrick’s No. 24 for a retiring Gordon.

Since having switched to the No. 9, a nod to his father’s glory days with Melling Racing, Elliott has seemed to earn everything but a Cup Series title, one that can truly make him a face of NASCAR, one nearing a new generation with a new vehicle template and schedule on the road ahead.

But Elliott’s mind isn’t meandering on any sort of validation…he’ll worry about that if and when his championship moment comes.

“When you’re on the hunt for one or you’ve never done it before, I’m not sure I’m thinking about the validation it’s going to give me on the backside,” he said. “I think I’m really just thinking about that being the goal and that being what I want to achieve and being that next step or the next thing that our team wants to go and have a shot at trying to make the final four.”

“I feel like that’s something you kind of reflect on after you do something like that. I’m not sure you really know what it feels like or what validation it might give you internally unless you’ve achieved it; which I obviously have not.”

“Personally, and as a team, there’s nothing anybody outside of myself or my team is going to say to me to make we want to win a championship more.”

Elliott will start on the pole for Sunday’s race at Kansas. He finished 12th during the last visit to the 1.5-mile tri-oval in the summer, but he won the fall event in 2018.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags