DOVER, Delaware – With more victory-snatching misery to digest, Chase Elliott at least had some company to absorb it Sunday at Dover International Speedway.
After losing the lead to winner Kyle Busch with just more than a lap remaining, Elliott parked his No. 24 Chevrolet in the pits, removed his helmet and held his head in his hands for a minute before climbing out.
He immediately was intercepted by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson (who finished third). The seven-time champion leaned against the car and … listened.
“I knew I couldn’t make him feel any better,” said Johnson, soon joined by teammate Kasey Kahne (who patted Elliott on the shoulder, too). “I just wanted to check on him and turn him around where people couldn’t see his face and let him get those few first words and sentences out.
“I anticipated them being cuss words, and they were. So just trying to be there for him, let him vent, let him get those first few sentences out. I just know from my own experience it’s just nice to kind of vent and get through that.”
Unfortunately, the agony wasn’t quite over for Elliott, whose conversation with the teammates was interrupted by Busch driving past on the banking about 50 feet away, checkered flag flapping out the window.
“I gave it away,” said Elliott, who has had numerous opportunities for his first victory slip away over the past two seasons. “I appreciate my team and their efforts today. The pit stops were great and they kept us in the ballgame. I didn’t.”
The finish essentially came down to traffic, which Elliott had difficulty navigating (in particular the No. 31 Chevrolet of Ryan Newman, who had a confrontation with Jeff Gordon about the role he played).
Elliott was left second-guessing himself about being more aggressive with his approach.
“I thought if I had a clean track, I could have run as fast as (Busch) did, but I didn’t, and I should have done something different,” he said. “So that’s just on me, and he did a better job than I did. At the end of the day that’s what it comes down to.”
Said Busch: “The only thing Chase could have done differently was just moved around and tried to get out of the wake of the cars that were in front of him. I was actually surprised he didn’t. He kept running the bottom behind those guys, and the bottom was what got him there for that point in the day. He was good down there all day long, but he was just getting slowed down too much by the air and everything in front of him.
“He could have just tried to blitz them on the top and get around them sooner, but other than that, I think he was just so focused on what he had all day long, making the bottom work, that he just stuck with it. When you have been leading for that long, and you’ve lost that amount of distance to the car behind you, you’ve got to move around. You can’t give up four seconds of the lead and not do something else. I feel like that’s kind of where they lost it today.“
Johnson said it made sense for Elliott to commit to running the bottom of the one-mile oval because “that is where 90 some percent of these races have been won, if not 95 or more. I think there was some cars fighting to stay on the lead lap that really, I think, hurt the performance of his car.”
There was some consolation for Elliott and Johnson, who finished in the top five together for the first time in nearly four months (since the June 4 race at Dover). Johnson believes that Hendrick is closing the gap on the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Martin Truex Jr., though Elliott was understandably less enthused.
“Yeah, I mean, I hope so,” Elliott said. “I hope. I mean, I don’t know. If I knew the future, I’d go lay some money down in Vegas or something, but I don’t know. So we’ll see.”
Johnson believes his teammate “is going to be a factor” at Charlotte Motor Speedway next week.
“Man, I feel for him,” Johnson said. “I don’t think you can say anything now to make it better. As we get closer to next weekend, the sting will subside, but right now, they’re racers. It’s going to hurt. That’s going to sting. We all know that 24 car is going to win a lot of races soon, and I feel for those guys.”