MARTINSVILLE, Va. – He was the only driver to outduel the dominant No. 2 Ford of race winner Brad Keselowski. He had his best shot to win a race in more than five months. He fortified the allegiance of fans at the NASCAR Cup series’ shortest track, which already has been a special place early in his career.
Ultimately, though, Chase Elliott knew a runner-up finish Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, one of only six short-track races on the circuit, will have a limited shelf life.
Hendrick Motorsports still must prove it can excel at the larger tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway that make up the bulk of the schedule and play a large role in determining the championship.
“From here? No,” Elliott said with a smile and a slight chuckle when asked if there were any momentum that could carry over to the 1.5-mile speedway that’s next on the schedule. “No.”
How about fueling some optimism that his No. 9 Chevrolet will be faster at Texas?
“I sure hope so,” he said.
There should at least be a more positive vibe in this week’s team debriefs after Elliott led 49 laps for his first top five since his Oct. 21 victory at Kansas Speedway. It also was Hendrick’s first top five of 2019 through six races (the longest the organization has gone without a top five to start a season since 2000).
It was only the second race of the past 10 that the No. 9 Chevrolet has led.
“We had a really, really solid car and this was the best shot we had to win to date this season, so when you have cars like that and performances like we did today, you really need to capitalize,” Elliott said. “And obviously with our struggle last week at Fontana (where he finished 11th), that was a bummer, so to come back and be able to run inside the top five all day long and be as competitive as the winner of the race was an improvement.
“And ultimately this is an important racetrack so coming back here in the fall, hopefully we can run like we did today, maybe a little better, and hopefully we’re still part of the deal to make it matter.”
Keselowski took the lead for the final time when his pit crew got him out ahead of Elliott under caution on Lap 374. He never passed Elliott under green, and Keselowski figured he wouldn’t after Elliott took the lead from him with 175 laps remaining shortly after a restart.
“I thought Chase was probably the best car most of the day,” said Keselowski, who led 446 of 500 laps. “I thought that might be the end of our day, but I was able to learn a few things from him and kind of dissect his strengths and weaknesses and make some adjustments of our own and come back out and be a little bit better for it. Pit crew did an excellent job gaining or retaining our track position all day, which is critical here at this racetrack.
“We were able to keep our track position, and that was so, so key to being able to win today because I think Chase, if he’d have been out front that run, he would have drove away from the field with what I saw from his car.”
Elliott slipped to third behind Keselowski and Kyle Busch on his last stop under yellow. He made a nifty move to retake second on the outside after Busch ran into Keselowski and slowed with 43 laps remaining.
He was making ground in the final 10 laps, but aerodynamics (rarely a factor at Martinsville but in play because of this year’s high downforce) seemed to factor into his inability to reach Keselowski’s bumper.
“I tried to root him off the bottom at the beginning of the run,” Elliott said. “That was probably my best shot. I felt like I was a little better than him taking off. Then I thought he got a little better than me through the midstage and then I feel like we kind of evened out.
“That one run I was able to get by him, it was definitely a slight advantage to being out front. Moved up with about five (laps) to go, was making a little time. But obviously not enough time and was just trying to get back to his bumper. Thought maybe I could root him out of the way. It was going to be really hard to drive up next to him and pass him. I was just going to have to get to his bumper and play some games and hope it went my way.”
At least there was hope of being in the game when NASCAR returns to Southwest Virginia in seven months for the opener of the Round of 8, which Elliott nearly won in 2017.
“Have to just improve and when we come back here,” he said. “This is an important race if you’re in the hunt, so hopefully we are.”