Friday 5: No panic for Chase Elliott in battle for playoff spots

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Chase Elliott is quick to point out that he doesn’t feel helpless, but he knows that he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates face challenges to secure playoff spots in the final eight regular-season races.

Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Elliott and Alex Bowman hold what would be the final three playoff positions, heading into Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson has a 54-point lead on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — the first driver outside a playoff spot. Elliott leads Stenhouse by 37 points and Bowman leads Stenhouse by 19 points.

“I think that we certainly have room to improve, and I think we have improved from where we started the season,” Elliott said earlier this week after unveiling the tribute throwback scheme he’ll run in the Southern 500.

“There’s been some weeks where we end practice on Saturday and we’re not in the same league as some people. What you have to do is go make the most of what you got. At the end of the day that’s sometimes the best thing. It’s easy to overreach sometimes and get yourself in more trouble than what you could have done if you just had done what you had in front of you.”

That could be an easy trap to fall in.

Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that measures success by championships, has gone nearly a year since its last Cup victory.

Jimmie Johnson is on a career-long winless streak of 41 races and Elliott seeks his first career Cup win as he nears 100 career starts. Teammate Alex Bowman makes his 100th start this weekend and looks for his first Cup win, although many of his starts were with underfunded teams, and William Byron is in his rookie season.

Elliott had scored eight consecutive finishes of 12th or better before he placed 19th at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago and then finished 34th at Daytona after he was eliminated by an accident.

“You can’t wig out over it,” Elliott said. “It is what it is. I had no control over the crash on Saturday night. Chicago, yes I thought I could have done a better job at the end of that race to improve our finish, sure, but this past Saturday night I don’t know what I would have done to keep that from happening. That stuff happens. Once we fall out of a  race I can’t control anything beyond that.”

2. Class by themselves

Moments after exiting a boiling car at the completion of 400 miles at Chicagoland Speedway, Brad Keselowski sat on the pit wall and wiped sweat from his face with a towel as Kyle Busch celebrated another victory.

Busch’s win two weeks ago continued a trend that has seen Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. dominate. They have won 13 of the first 18 Cup races this season and the last 12 races on 1.5-mile speedways, dating back to last year.

“It’s like there’s an A, B, C, D group,” Keselowski said of ranking the teams. “We’re in the B group. We want to go from good to great.”

He noted then that they were behind Truex, Busch and the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“I think the difference, as you look at those cars, they have more speed and you don’t see their mistakes because they’ve got speed to recover from it,’’ Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, said after the Chicago race. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to find more speed in our cars.

Busch admitted his car was awful the first two stages at Chicagoland before hitting on the right changes and taking the lead on pit road.

Clint Bowyer showed how fast the Stewart-Haas cars are — Gordon said Bowyer’s car at Chicago was “stupid fast” — by finishing fifth after two speeding penalties and a third trip down pit road when he did not serve a stop-and-go penalty on his second speeding infraction.

That’s not a luxury most of the field has. They have to be perfect.

That’s the challenge Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Kentucky Speedway for many teams.

3. Ruh-roh

That seems to be the common theme about the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway (or Roval as some call it) after some teams tested there Tuesday.

Tight turns, minimal run-off areas before hitting walls or tire barriers, and the race being the cutoff event in the first round of the playoffs, should make for a wild afternoon of racing.

What that race will do, though, is put more pressure on teams to do well in the first two races — Las Vegas and Richmond — in the opening round. Have poor finishes at either of those races and be toward the bottom of the playoff standings will only add pressure on drivers at Charlotte in the Sept. 30 event.

Another key factor will be how many playoff points drivers have. That could make the difference in advancing from the first round if the race is as chaotic as some forecast.

The rest of the Cup field is scheduled to test on the Charlotte road course Tuesday.

4. Gauntlet thrown

After Ben Rhodes’ Camping World Truck Series win Thursday night at his home track of Kentucky Speedway, ThorSport Racing General Manager David Pepper had a warning to competitors.

“With five races to go in the regular season, leading into the playoffs,” Pepper said, “the rest of these teams need to look out for ThorSport. We’re going to be a factor.”

Along with Rhodes giving the team its first win of the year Thursday, ThorSport’s Matt Crafton finished third and Grant Enfinger placed sixth. ThorSport’s Myatt Snider crashed in qualifying and never had a chance to do much in his backup.

GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter has won a series-high four times and Hattori Racing Enterprises’ Brett Moffitt has three wins.

5. Drivers to get their first win while at Joe Gibbs Racing

Erik Jones is the fifth driver to score his first career Cup victory while at Joe Gibbs Racing. He joins Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

Labonte’s first win came in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600. Stewart’s first win was in the September 1999 Richmond race. Hamlin’s first win was in the June 2011 Pocono race. Logano’s first victory came in June 2009 at New Hampshire.

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