HAMPTON, Ga. – On the brink of his latest soul-crushing disappointment in falling just short of his first NASCAR Cup victory, let’s revisit the last near-miss for Chase Elliott.
After losing a healthy lead when the yellow flew with a scheduled two laps remaining and subsequently finishing third Sept. 18, 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway in last season’s playoffs opener, Elliott said, “That’s life. You just have to embrace it and move on.”
Did his feelings change when he lost the season’s biggest race of the year when his No. 24 Chevrolet ran out of fuel Sunday while leading the Daytona 500 with three laps remaining?
“Um no, it is still kind of the same deal,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said Friday before practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “It’s disappointing. You learn through this stuff, and you just try to think about what you could have done differently.
“At Chicago, I don’t really know what we could have done about that, and I really don’t know what you do about running out of gas with just a couple of laps to go, either. In both of those cases, I felt like from a performance side, I thought we did a good job and we were close, just not close enough. I don’t know that it really changes my complexion or outlook on how I view things. It’s definitely a disappointing finish to a good day.”
Elliott has absorbed unwanted experience with stomaching the checkered flags that slip away. As a rookie, he also finished second twice at Michigan International Speedway.
At Daytona, he started from the pole position in a car that won a Thursday qualifying race.
“I mean we had such a great car down there and a great start to the week, a great Thursday night,” he said. “That was a devastating way to end a good week for sure.
“There are two things, I think, to look at when you think about Daytona for us. A. We had to play the cards we were dealt. I felt like we planned to the best of our ability. I think that is something to be proud of. B. We ran out of gas. Yes, we were leading and it’s easy to say, ‘Ahh it was ours to lose’. In reality there were still three laps to go and three laps at Daytona is a long time. So, I think for us to sit back and think that we had it locked down is kind of foolish.”
Jimmie Johnson scored his first Cup victory in his 13th start (at Fontana, Calif., in April 2002), but he didn’t win the first of seven championships until his fifth season — a fact that he has drawn on in advising and encouraging his Hendrick teammate Elliott.
“I just keep telling him, ‘Man, you can’t change what you are doing. You are doing such a great job,’” Johnson said. “He has learned so quick. Such talent that in my heart and from watching from the outside, I know (a win is) going to happen. We all know it’s going to happen. When he starts winning, he is not going to stop winning.
“I had a few championship opportunities slip away before we won one. I just kept telling myself, ‘How many of these am I going to waste away?’ These opportunities don’t show up all the time. So, I’m pretty confident that has been through his mind, but hopefully he is also telling himself — and I know that I’m telling him — ‘Man I’m young, I’ve got a lot of racing left.’ He is really doing the right things. Sometimes you are just unlucky, and eventually that luck will come around.”
What are the “right things” that Elliott is doing?
“He just has such a good sense of the race and adjustments that he needs for the race,” Johnson said. “To watch him grow over the course of Daytona and understand the draft and the strength that his car had, he started to do things in the draft that nobody else was even thinking about. So, it’s just an instinctive thing inside of him, that racing savvy that you can’t teach somebody.
” You can learn to be courageous, you can learn to go run one fast lap, you can teach yourself those things, but that in-race stuff you really are kind of born with that, and he has that.”
Some TV analysts have second-guessed whether Elliott’s team should have had him drop back in the draft to avoid running out of fuel with a dominant car, positioning himself to surge near the finish when several others also had expiring fuel tanks.
Elliott, who led 39 laps at Daytona, said it wasn’t an option that made sense.
“They said we were going to be really close, and that we were basically right there if not a little short,” he said. “And really the situation we were in, leading the race, we didn’t talk about falling back to try to draft because we all know as soon as I do that, the caution comes out, and then everybody makes it from there.”
After an attrition-filled race in which 35 of 40 cars were involved in crashes, Elliott said the “biggest disappointment is we were able to survive all the way to the end and that is a hard thing to do in itself. You don’t see a whole lot of superspeedway races come down to fuel mileage. I think that is the biggest thing is we made it to the end. Just not in the right manner.”
It’s probably little consolation, but Elliott’s Hall of Fame father, Bill, finished runner-up eight times before his breakthrough victory in the 1983 season finale at Riverside International Raceway.
“Yeah, he has brought that up a couple of times,” Elliott said. “He has mentioned that. It’s one of those things where it’s crazy. Obviously, that was back in the ’80’s, and things were a lot different, but it kind of just goes to show you if it’s not your day, it’s not your day. I guess whenever it’s meant to be our day, it will be, and hopefully that day comes.”