For the first time in four years, Chevrolet has a driver in the NASCAR Cup Series championship fight going into the finale.
Chase Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports will represent the Bowtie. Elliott qualified for his first Championship 4 appearance with a dramatic and emotional must-win last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. He is the first Chevy driver in the final four since Jimmie Johnson in 2016 – the year he won his seventh and final championship.
“We’ve done these OEM press conferences for a lot of years, and it’s definitely more fun when you have a Chevy in the final,” said Jim Campbell, vice president performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “It’s something in our history we’re used to, so it’s great to be back.
“It’s difficult to win one race, and to see Chase have a year where he won four times, and he won in a clutch moment in the Round of 8 at Martinsville, just an amazing race. It could have gone any which way, and we’re so proud of him and Alan [Gustafson] and the whole team at Hendrick. So super excited. I think it’s going to be – these four drivers are just absolutely incredibly talented. It’s going to be an absolute shootout.”
Three Chevrolet drivers advanced into the Round of 8 with Elliott, Alex Bowman, and Kurt Busch. However, all three were below the cutline going into Martinsville and needed to win the race. Elliott mathematically could have advanced on points starting the day, but the way the race played out through the first two stages, he wound up needing to win.
“They’re riding high, feel good,” said Rick Hendrick on the No. 9 team. “We’ve got some unbelievable competition here with Roger’s [Penske] two cars and Joe’s [Gibbs] car. We know we’ve got to be at our best. At least we got a shot. It’s good to be back in the ballgame again.”
Chevrolet has won eight races this season, four courtesy of Elliott. Bowman, Kurt Busch, William Byron, and Austin Dillon also visited victory lane and all qualified for the playoffs.
“To me, yeah, I think it’s important,” said Gustafson of having a Chevy in championship contention. “It’s always important. It’s what we do. I just felt like we’ve been right on the cusp for so many years the last three years or so, we needed to get over the edge. You keep swinging at ‘em, keep swinging at ‘em, finally hit one.
“I think it was time, and certainly, there was some urgency from Mr. Hendrick and from Chevrolet that we needed to be represented in the championship. I would say every year’s important, but certainly, the one you’re in is the most.”
Said Jeff Andrews, competition direction of Hendrick Motorsports, “We’ve consistently gotten to that Round of 8 but getting past that point and getting into the Round of 4 has been very important for Mr. Royce and Jim Campbell and everybody at Chevrolet, to get a car to Phoenix and compete for a championship. We were excited to do that and be a part of that for them.
“And Certainly, part of a great effort in general from Chevrolet here in the last two years to get these teams together, specifically the Childress and Hendrick and Ganassi groups, get everybody working together on different initiatives, different projects, talking to each other. I think what’s happened here in the last eight or nine weeks have been a culmination of that. There’s been a lot of working together to accomplish this goal of getting a car to Phoenix.”
Andrew said everyone left the season finale last year very disappointed, and Hendrick let everyone know he was unhappy. It was one of the worst years for the organization in quite some time from a point finishing position, with Elliott the highest Hendrick driver at 10th in the standings.
“I don’t want to say there’s nothing worse, but to go down there and not be part of that, it’s just a totally different feeling after having been a part of it for so many years,” said Andrews. “To put (Rick Hendrick) back in the middle of that, we’re awful proud.
“He’s excited. He’s pumped up. We’re happy to go out there to Phoenix and fight for him for (the title).”
Chevrolet won the championship in 2014 and ’16 under this winner-take-all format.