Defending Xfinity champ Chase Elliott in early hole after Daytona wreck

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Chase Elliott’s Xfinity Series title defense began badly on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.

The JR Motorsports driver, who will move to Sprint Cup full-time next year and replace Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports, was one of 10 involved in a major crash that red-flagged the series’ season opener with less than 10 laps to go.

Elliott went low to avoid the pileup, only to have Cale Conley lose control and spin into him. Elliott was sent spinning himself through the grass near Turn 1 before coming to a stop.

After taking damage earlier in another big crash that saw his JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith flip over in the tri-oval, this second hit was too much for Elliott. He finished 28th, nine laps off the pace.

“I saw some guys up ahead start to check up and some were squirrelly,” Elliott said. “I know they were starting to bump draft really hard. I don’t believe it was anyone’s fault [Saturday], it’s just a part of trying to make that outside lane work here. And to do that, you really have to push hard to not hook up and lock bumpers. It’s just the unfortunate part of it.”

Elliott started 35th, but following green flag stops for himself and Smith, a caution came out with 40 laps to go. The excellent timing put Elliott up front for the restart and he was still in the top-five when Big One No. 1 came with 27 laps left. Contact between Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez sent Suarez into Smith, and as Smith went end-over-end, Suarez then slammed into Elliott.

When the red flag was lifted, Elliott went into the pits multiple times under yellow to have his No. 9 crew fix significant front-end damage. But Elliott was still in contention for a possible top-10 finish before Big One No. 2 ensued following contact between Kyle Busch and Erik Jones. Busch went hard into an inside retaining wall and suffered severe leg and foot injuries that have put him out of action indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Elliott will look to rebound at Atlanta next weekend. He won the pole for the Xfinity race there last season and converted it to a fifth-place finish – one of 16 top-five finishes he had in his run to the series championship.