I wrote back in January that it will be crucial that Chase Elliott wins races this year.
In his first two full seasons, Elliott went 0-for in the win column, and the mental beat-up he’d unleash on himself for the repeated near-misses was a bit scary. Get him into victory lane, I reasoned, and you’d quiet the whispers of him cracking under pressure and, hopefully, take a load off his mind.
Here we are in early October, and it seems Elliott has learned how to close out races, huh?
Elliott’s second career NASCAR Cup Series win last Sunday at Dover is a considerably bigger deal than his first back in August at Watkins Glen, and not just because Brian France didn’t overshadow this one by appearing in a police report. In Dover, Elliott kept his cool on the overtime restart, sealed the deal when finding himself up front late on, and punched his ticket to the third round of the playoffs.
Ironically, Dover was one of the races in ’17 that got away from Elliott. After leading 138 laps, Elliott was passed by Kyle Busch with two to go. A year later, crew chief Alan Gustafson watched his young driver execute better.
“You just have to go through those situations, and last year we had a shot to win, and unfortunately didn’t win,” said Gustafson after the race. “You can second‑guess a lot of things, and you can always say, ‘hey, man, I’d do this different or that different’, but we all learned from that experience, and certainly I think he learned from that experience, and that enabled him to race a little bit better today. I think he did a better job passing today’ and really what got us last year is just the lap cars and not working lap traffic as good as we needed to, and he did a good job with that today.
“So, there’s all those little lessons. It takes putting it all together to win these races, and he certainly did that today. I don’t know that there was anything last year with the restarts; it was pretty much a green flag run. But he’s constantly maturing, and you’ve got to go through those situations. He’s way above the curve, but anybody, when you’re in those situations you’ve got to go through [them].”
To Elliott’s credit, he doesn’t give a damn how the press has documented his close calls or constantly hounded him about the subject.
“Honestly, it was frustrating at the beginning of it, but you guys asked me so much I got to the point where I really didn’t care,” said Elliott. “Just really don’t care what y’all ask me anymore, and that’s a great way to be in my opinion. It may not be right or wrong, but that’s the way I’ve approached it, and it’s the way I’m going to continue to approach it.”
Elliott called the ’17 Dover race “probably the toughest day of my career.” And whether or not you believe a driver must learn to lose before they can win, there is no denying that Elliott certainly experienced the cruelness of big-time auto racing before being able to reap its rewards. A second win validates the first, and with Elliott having now won in the playoffs the floodgates may be open in more ways than one.
“Anything is possible, man,” Elliott said of the rest of the season. “There’s no reason at all we can’t make a run at this [championship] deal. I thought we made a great run at it last year. Personally, I felt like we went way further than anybody expected us to, a couple laps away from going to Homestead. No reason why we can’t do that this year and give those guys a run.”