AVONDALE, Arizona — It has become an all-too-familiar scene: Chase Elliott finishing second while another driver celebrates a Cup win that seemed as if it would be Elliott’s.
For the seventh time in his career — tying a Cup a record for most career runner-ups without a win — Elliott was left to explain what kept him from victory.
This, unlike the others, likely was more painful because a win Sunday at Phoenix Raceway would have put him into the championship round and given him a chance to win the title. A victory was his only way to compete for the crown next weekend in Miami.
Instead, he’ll have to be satisfied with another strong run, a measured but firm response to Denny Hamlin on the track, and the knowledge that he’ll have another chance to get that first victory.
None of that mattered to Elliott when the checkered flag flew first for Matt Kenseth.
“That’s all I had buddy,’’ Elliott said on the radio to crew chief Alan Gustafson. “Sorry, I was trying freaking everything I knew to try. I’ll get it right some day.”
Elliott took the lead from Matt Kenseth on Lap 284 and held it for the next 19 laps before Kenseth got back by with 10 laps to go. Elliott couldn’t mount a challenge.
Instead, his only trip to Victory Lane on this day was to congratulate Kenseth.
“A lot of close calls,’’ Elliott said of his season. “I wish more than anything we were fighting for a championship next week.’’
Elliott said he just couldn’t keep Kenseth behind him.
“Our car was really, really fast on those short runs after the rubber got picked up, and we had struggled to be super tight on the long haul and kept taking off really good and was able to kind of work our way forward,’’ Elliott said. “I gave everything I had to try to get a big enough gap so that I could try to keep Matt back there, and tried with everything I had, and it wasn’t enough.’’
Elliott sent the crowd to its feet in his duel with Hamlin for third with about 50 laps left in the race. Elliott nudged Hamlin a couple of times on the rear bumper and dived under Hamlin. As they raced side-by-side, Elliott moved up and Hamlin was pinched against the wall. Hamlin later crashed from the contact, which led to a cut tire.
“A wise man once told me that he’ll race guys the way they raced him with a smile on his face,’’ Elliott said about how he raced Hamlin. “That’s what I did today. I raced him the way he raced me. That’s the way I saw it. That’s about all I have to say.’’
Said Hamlin of the contact: “I got into him (at Martinsville). He chose to retaliate. I’m in the garage. That’s the way it is.’’
With that past and no chance at a championship, how does Elliott move forward?
“You just keep coming back,’’ he said, standing on pit road as Kenseth drove to victory lane. “You recognize there’s always going got be another race and there’s always going to be another opportunity. That’s all you have to recognize, there’s going to be another one next week, another season next year and recognize that the past is the past and learn from it and try to move on down the road.’’