Long: Pay attention to what Chase Elliott is doing in playoffs

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Don’t call Chase Elliott the Fourth to NASCAR’s Big 3.

Don’t say the Hendrick Motorsports driver has become a member of the Big 3.

Don’t label him a championship threat after his second win in the past three races and third in the last 11 — although no other remaining title contender can match those victory totals in the same stretch.

He’s just Chase, the kid, once adored in those old Victory Lane photos with his dad, who has grown up.

So stop with the labels and watch what he’s doing.

Elliott’s performance is beginning to mirror what Jimmie Johnson did in his run to a record-tying seven Cup championships. Johnson raised his performance as LeBron James does in the NBA playoffs and Tom Brady does during the NFL playoffs.

But it wasn’t just Johnson who excelled. It was the entire team. The pattern was always the same. The Hendrick Motorsports crew had better cars when it came time to race for a crown and Johnson took advantage.

Elliott is taking advantage of the faster cars crew chief Alan Gustafson and his team have provided.

The signs were there last year. Elliott had an average finish of 13.5 in the regular season and it dropped to 7.9 during the playoffs. He scored runner-up finishes in three of the first four playoff races and was in position to win at Martinsville before Denny Hamlin’s bump crashed him. Elliott finished second at Phoenix when he needed a win to advance to the championship race in Miami.

“Those pressure-packed situations, the only time you can learn from them is to be in them more often,” Elliott said. “I think it’s as simple as that. The more you’re comfortable with that, the better off you’re going to be for it.”

Elliott has turned those seconds into firsts this year. What started at Watkins Glen in August continued into the playoffs with his victories at Dover and Kansas. No one has more wins than Elliott in the first six playoffs races. 

Those victories guarantee nothing in the third round, which begins Sunday at Martinsville (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch — members of the Big 3 — each has at least three times as many playoff points as Elliott. That makes Harvick and Busch favorites to return to Miami. The other member of the Big 3, Martin Truex Jr., has 38 playoff points to Elliott’s 18 but Truex’s struggles at Kansas are concerning.

Still, that could leave one spot for Miami among Elliott, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola.

Elliott has less title experience then all of them but Almirola, but Elliott has shown he’s a quick learner, steeled by the team’s struggles early in the season.

“In my opinion what he was driving earlier in the year, in his Cup career, for sure, it’s the worst cars he’s driven,” Gustafson said. “When he had to make do with that, I felt bad for him at times, doing everything I could do, but wasn’t giving him a good enough car. He had to go and deal with that. It’s a struggle. It’s a battle, right?

“I think that he learned as he went through that. That’s helped improve him. You may pick up certain traits, certain attributes about tracks or different circumstances. Those are the things that he had to do earlier in the year that he may not have had to do earlier in his career because we were able to give him a much better racecar.

“As that’s happened, he’s improved. The pit crews have been great all year. Now we’ve gotten the cars much improved. All those things add up.”

For as good as Elliott and his team have been, they aren’t perfect. Weren’t even close Sunday.

“We made mistakes throughout the day,” Elliott said. “The only reason you weren’t talking about it was because we weren’t leading. That’s the big thing. When you’re out front, everybody is watching you. 

“When you’re not leading the race, mistakes happen all day long, but just trying not to make them towards the end I think is the big one. These next three weeks, there is no room for mistakes. I look forward to the challenge.”

Mistakes by others helped Elliott. Kevin Harvick’s speeding penalty on Lap 214 took him out of contention and helped put Elliott in position to lead the final 44 laps Sunday.

Harvick also dominated Dover until a valve stem was knocked off in a late pit stop. Elliott benefitted there as well. So we’ve yet to see a true Elliott vs. Harvick battle in these playoffs.

“I wish we could have raced Kevin for it straight up there at the end, have him not have his misfortune,” Elliott said after Sunday’s win. “I think he’s been the class of the mile‑and‑a‑half’s throughout the year.

“But just to run with him, be able to pace him lap time‑wise, be being 10 car lengths of him trying to get by him, I thought was very encouraging.”

There’s still time to see if Elliott and Harvick engage in a playoff duel. Or Elliott and someone else. So pay attention to that instead of trying to label where Elliott is as this third round begins.

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