Cup champ Chase Elliott ready for the big moments in playoff run


“To be real honest with you, I don’t really feel any different than I did going in last year.”

Such was reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott‘s response to a question this week about whether having a series title made him feel more or less pressure.

At first glance, it seems like standard professional athlete boilerplate. But maybe we should believe him.

Behind the wheel, Elliott’s regular season in 2021 was remarkably similar in many metrics to his regular season in 2020.

In last year’s regular season, Elliott posted two wins, 10 top-five finishes and 15 top-10 finishes. He entered the playoffs as the fifth seed with 20 playoff points.

This year, Elliott’s posted two wins, 11 top fiives and 16 top 10s. He again enters the playoffs as the fifth seed, but with 21 playoff points.

But in becoming and being a champion, Elliott acknowledges a major difference: He’s learned to enjoy the big moments more.

“If you don’t enjoy them, you’re never going to thrive in them,” he said. “A big moment typically means it means something to you and it typically means there’s opportunity for something big at the end of it.

“You have to like it. I mean, that’s to me the biggest piece of the whole puzzle. I don’t think that message will ever change whether you have zero championships, or you have 15.

“I feel like that’s the single most important piece of how this playoff format works. It promotes winning, and winning in big situations.”

The first of those situations comes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN), where the Southern 500 kicks off the opening Round of 16.

In last year’s race, Elliott was leading with 15 laps to go when Martin Truex Jr. looked to pass him for the lead. Instead, the two made contact and both went into the wall. The incident ruined both of their chances to win, as Kevin Harvick went on to take the playoff opener.

Elliott would bounce back with a fifth-place finish the next week at Richmond. It was the first of seven finishes of seventh or better (including three wins) he posted on his way to claiming the championship in Phoenix.

Now that the opportunity to defend his title is here, both he and crew chief Alan Gustafson are eager to get started.

“We’re ready to go, we’re ready to race,” Gustafson said during a Friday media teleconference. “This is our favorite time of year and this is when you have to make it happen. I think we’re in a good position to do that. I’m excited to get going and execute.

“If we do that, we certainly all feel like it’s under our control. … I think we’ve got a great opportunity to win races and be there at Phoenix.”

The biggest challenge to Elliott could be within his own Hendrick Motorsports team. Elliott, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron combined to win 11 of 26 regular season races.

But it was Larson who’s stood out. In addition to a series-high five wins and a regular season title in the Cup Series, his continued success outside NASCAR has sparked talk that his 2021 season may be one of the greatest in recent memory by an American driver.

However, Elliott embraces the prospect of dueling Larson or another Hendrick driver for the title.

That would fit the bill for a big moment, after all.

“If you’re at a solid organization, there’s a good chance you’re going to be racing against your teammates for big moments (and) big opportunities,” he said.

“Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing. It means we’re at a great organization and you have a chance to win and have won some races.”

COTA Xfinity starting lineup: AJ Allmendinger takes pole


AJ Allmendinger, who won this race a year ago, will start on the pole for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas.

Allmendinger earned the pole with a lap of 92.173 mph Friday on the 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course.

MORE: COTA Xfinity starting lineup

He will be joined on the front row Sammy Smith (91.827 mph).
Ty Gibbs (91.665) will start third. Sheldon Creed (91.652) qualified fourth. Parker Kligerman (91.195) will start fifth.

Cup driver William Byron will start ninth. Byron’s time was disallowed for cutting the esses. Cole Custer, who will start 10th, didn’t make a lap in the final round of qualifying.

Cup driver Aric Almirola (91.269) qualified 13th. Truck Series racer Carson Hocevar (90.669) will start 17th. Alex Labbe (90.476) will start 23rd. He’s filling in for Josh Williams, who is serving a one-race suspension for parking his car at the start/finish line of last weekend’s race at Atlanta.

COTA Truck starting lineup: Ross Chastain wins pole


Ross Chastain will start on the pole for Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas.

Chastain earned the top starting spot in Friday’s qualifying with a lap of 91.877 mph. He’ll be joined on the front row by Kyle Busch (91.490 mph).

More: COTA Truck starting lineup

Ty Majeski qualified third with a lap of 91.225 mph. Rookie Nick Sanchez (90.993) will start fourth, and Christian Eckes (90.937) will complete the top five.

Alex Bowman failed to make the race. Bowman had a flat right front on his qualifying lap.

Tyler Reddick leads Cup practice at COTA


Tyler Reddick posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Cup practice at Circuit of the Americas.

Reddick, who won two road course races last season, topped the field in his 23XI Racing Toyota with a lap of 92.989 mph. Kyle Larson was next, posting a lap of 92.618 mph around the 3.41-mile road course.

MORE: COTA Cup practice results

Ross Chastain, who won this race a year ago, was third on the speed chart in practice with a lap of 92.520 mph. He was followed by Kyle Busch (92.498 mph) and Daniel Suarez (92.461 mph).

Jordan Taylor, subbing for the injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 car for Hendrick Motorsports, was 10th on the speed chart in practice after a lap of 92.404 mph.

Former world champion Jenson Button, driving for Rick Ware Racing, was 28th in practice with a lap of 91.759 mph. Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, driving the Project 91 car for Trackhouse Racing, was 32nd in practice after a lap of 91.413 mph.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, driving in his first race for Legacy Motor Club since the Daytona 500, was 36th in practice after a lap of 91.072 mph. IndyCar driver Conor Daly was last among the 39 cars in practice with a lap of 90.095 mph.

Cup qualifying is Saturday. The series races Sunday.


Saturday COTA Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


Austin Hill, the dominant driver in the NASCAR Xfinity Series through the early weeks of the season, will be looking for his first Xfinity road course win Saturday.

Hill has won three of the season’s first five races, scoring victories at Daytona, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Hill has been close in previous road course runs. He has a second at COTA, a third at Portland, a fourth at Road America and a ninth at Indianapolis.

MORE: Dr. Diandra takes a look at top Cup road course drivers

Kyle Busch and AJ Allmendinger own wins in the previous Xfinity races at COTA.

Allmendinger and three other Cup Series regulars — Aric Almirola, William Byron and Ty Gibbs — are scheduled to race in the Xfinity event.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 5:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled at 5:19 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 2 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Jordan Thiessen of Pit Boss Grills at 5 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by recording artist Payton Keller at 5:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 46 laps (156 miles) on the 3.41-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 14. Stage 2 ends at Lap 30.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 5 p.m. … NASCAR RaceDay airs at 4 p.m. on FS1. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and can be heard at …SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mainly sunny. Temperature of 82 at race time. No chance of rain.

LAST TIME: AJ Allmendinger won last March’s Xfinity race at COTA. Austin Hill was two seconds behind in second place. Cole Custer finished third.