Analysis: A potential Chase Elliott hot streak is on the horizon

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Chase Elliott’s standing in the championship hierarchy is a peculiar one. He’s the reigning series champion but also, at times, second-fiddle within his own organization with Kyle Larson having emerged as the new Hendrick Motorsports bellwether. The tracks on which Elliott has won this season, COTA and Road America, are road courses without direct representation on the playoff schedule.

Despite his traditional stat line, he’s shown flashes of brilliance in his top-end performances on tracks he’ll soon visit down the stretch:

  • He turned the fastest lap of any driver this spring in Las Vegas.
  • Hendrick produced the fastest car of any organization at Talladega, a race in which Elliott led three laps and a track on which he’s a previous winner.
  • One of his three runner-up finishes on ovals this season came at Martinsville, where he turned in a race-best adjusted pass efficiency (60.5%).
  • His fifth-place Phoenix result out-finished his median lap ranking (ninth) for the race and served as the top mark within Hendrick.

Considering he’s been to victory lane at six of the seven facilities left on the trophy trail, it’s more possible than meets the eye that Elliott is capable of conjuring “Mr. September” or “Mr. October” vibes. Regardless, what is clear is that after opening the playoffs with finishes of 31st (Darlington) and 25th (Bristol) within the first round, he isn’t garnering the recognition he deserves as a viable title candidate.

So, let’s put some respect on his name:

Against all playoff teams on playoff tracks in the regular season, Elliott and his No. 9 team ranked in the 88th percentile or higher in four key statistical categories — surplus passing, weighted positional gain on green-flag pit cycles (noted as GF Offense), weighted retention rate on green-flag pit cycles (GF Defense) and weighted retention rate on yellow-flag stops (YF Defense). This symbolizes a team that hardly errs with its track position. Elliott’s mistake on a lap-181 pit stop at Richmond was certainly a race-altering miscue, but such a thing is rare for him across a much broader scope.

Elliott’s passing, namely on long runs is both a source of offense in its totality — he’s earned a pass differential 200 positions beyond his statistical expectation — and defense, representing a kind of efficiency, avoiding the side-by-side jostles that thwart tangible on-track progress. That makes Hendrick’s habitual gray-area explorations in the inspection line more tolerable. Omitting Talladega, he turned in positive adjusted pass efficiencies on each of the remaining non-drafting tracks in his most recent starts. He’s one of four drivers who can make this claim, the others being Larson, Kyle Busch and Alex Bowman.

But can he distant himself from them or other playoff drivers? Does he have that capacity?

“It’s a fine line, right? I feel like you always want to grab that extra gear if you have it to pull,” Elliott said. “A lot of times you don’t. I think you can very easily reach too far and get yourself in more trouble than what you would if you really executed what you had to work with.

“I think it’s recognizing those things. ‘Hey, can we be better? Do we have that gear to pull? Can we step it up a notch?’ If the answer is yes, OK, let’s do it somehow, some way.”

It seems Elliott does have another “gear” we can quantify. The chief difference between him and the three others who can reliably pass at each remaining track is that a much higher ceiling for potential can be observed.

Dating back to April, the chasm between Elliott’s median lap and best lap of every race was observable. Nearly 22 weeks later, that’s still the case. The No. 9 car ranks fourth in average median lap time, while simultaneously faring second best among each car’s average best lap rank. This team has seemingly more speed than it routinely shows, and if that heightened speed sustains across any stretch of this playoffs, he’d instantly surpass two Joe Gibbs Racing cars and contend somewhat evenly with his more celebrated stable mate:

Elliott turned the fastest lap in seven races this season, the highest tally in the series (Larson turned the fastest lap in five races). But he ranked first in single-race median speed just once — in February’s race on the Daytona road course, where he failed to convert his performance into a victory.

This, too, feels like a disconnect just begging for a course correction. One could come as soon as this weekend’s race in Las Vegas. The 1.5-mile track is an intriguing touchstone for Elliott’s career.

After not leading a single lap in any of his first five Cup Series starts there, he finally cracked P1 in the fall of 2019 and has registered at least 12 laps led per race ever since. His 20.6-place average finish belies it a place of strength for the 25-year-old — only Joey Logano’s 9.6-place career-long average running position there tops Elliott’s 9.9-place mark. Barring a severe drop in form, he’ll be a fixture at the front of the field.

From there, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval loom — the latter on which Elliott has won the last two contests — before a semifinal round consisting of Kansas, Texas and Martinsville. It’s a run-up to the season finale that may see individual favorites based on track characteristics and horsepower packages, but Elliott is one of a few well suited for all courses.

And if his ceiling for potential this season hasn’t been reached, there’s room for a form of dominance we haven’t seen from him since around this time last season.