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.

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.