Chase Elliott sees the same theme developing in the NASCAR Cup Series this year as others do regarding the “hot” and “not” teams each week. For whatever reason — some point to the Next Gen car — it seems far easier for teams to hit on their setup one weekend but then struggle the next.
Elliott has experienced that with his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports group. With two wins, Elliott leads the point standings going into Road America (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, USA Network), but he doesn’t have as many top-five finishes as some of his fellow title contenders. Elliott isn’t sold so much on the Next Gen car being the reason for teams flip-flopping each weekend as everyone is still trying to figure out what they need.
“I think the line is very thin to hit it perfect,” Elliott said earlier this week during an event at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. “Sunday night [at Nashville] for us, we just happened to hit it right at the right time. It was an educated guess, but it was still a bit of a guess in a lot of ways and it worked out. Now to replicate that at other places — I would say in our team and a lot of teams — [we] don’t exactly know yet how [to] replicate that feel everywhere. We just haven’t gone to all these tracks yet and haven’t gone to them enough to be tuning in fine details.
“With our other car, we were focusing on things that would blow you away at the detail that would make a difference. Right now, we’re swinging for bigger adjustments and bigger overall setup approaches. I think it’s probably more of trying to learn what it wants at these different track types more so than the car. I think the change, and how different it is, is probably feeding that more than the actual build.”
Unfortunately for Elliott and the rest of the field, there aren’t many return trips to racetracks before the playoffs start. Of the 26 regular-season races, only three tracks are visited twice: Daytona, Atlanta and Richmond.
When the playoffs start, teams will visit six tracks for just the second time. Seven if you include Texas Motor Speedway, which hosted the non-points All-Star Race. It doesn’t leave teams with much of a notebook for the most crucial part of the year.
“Yeah, but there are things that will carry over,” Elliott said. “I think when you hit on something and it makes sense, probably 70 percent of the time you can take something that works and at least apply it in some way. You might not apply it 100 percent somewhere else, but you may take half of that and be able to take it there, and it’s about stacking all those little details. One little thing might not make a huge difference, but you stack 10 of them on top of each [other] and you’ve made an improvement.
“But yeah, we don’t go to a lot of places for a second time until they really matter, so we’ll try to make educated guesses.”
Elliott is enjoying the new norm, though. Teams and drivers face unique circumstances of learning a new car and having little track time to do it.
“I’ve said it a lot — throughout the season and even through our time with the COVID break and coming back and only showing up and racing — just the logistical practicality of how we’re doing things now makes way more sense for everyone involved,” Elliott said. “There was just no reason to be there three days at a track and be traveling for a fourth day just for the race to look the same. I could totally see it if it made the race look different, but heck, the races didn’t look any different in 2020, and we showed up on race day and still put on the same great show we would have if we were there from Thursday night to Sunday.
“I think for them to condense things is more cost-effective for teams and [media] traveling. Again, I think the show ends up being just as good as it would have been before. And like I tell people the time — there is no better practice than a race.”
Drivers have to be more on their toes with Next Gen car since there is no room for error. Elliott and others have a much smaller margin of messing up and not being able to recover. It used to be second nature to know where the line was and what to do with the car, but now drivers are still trying to find the edge.
“The setup contributes to that too,” Elliott said. “Some places make it a little less forgiving than others, but the line to get it right is just super thin with this car, and I don’t know that’s going to change. I’d say that’s here to stay, which is fine. But it makes it very difficult to hit right.
“The way these things drive — and the tire on them, and the way the setups have to be — it’s a thin little line to hit. When you do, it’s really good and really fun. When you don’t, it can be a miserable three and a half hours.”