Friday 5: Chase Elliott embraces challenge of Roval, playoff cutoff race


Chase Elliott seeks his third consecutive victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval this weekend, but the reigning Cup champion also faces playoff elimination.

He is among a group of former Cup champions at or near the cutline heading into Sunday’s Round of 12 cutoff race (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Elliott and two-time Cup champ Kyle Busch hold the final two transfer spots. They are both nine points ahead of former champion Kevin Harvick, the first driver outside a transfer position.

“Well, it could always be worse, right?,” Elliott said of his spot in the standings.

Elliott knows quite well that a driver more than 20 points from the cutline in an elimination race still can advance. He’s done it in each of the past two years.

In 2019, Elliott entered the Round of 12 cutoff race 22 points from the cutline. He finished second at Kansas and beat Brad Keselowski, who placed 19th, by three points to take the last transfer spot.

Last year, Elliott entered the Round of 8 cutoff race 25 points from the cutline. He won at Martinsville to clinch a spot in the championship race at Phoenix. He won the title the following week.

It’s easy to expect Elliott to win Sunday at the Roval – or at least advance to the next round – because of his road course success. His two wins this season came at Circuit of the Americas and Road America. Elliott has won seven of the last 13 Cup road course events and is the favorite this weekend.

But the Roval hasn’t been easy for Elliott despite the victories.

He crashed into the Turn 1 barrier while leading the 2019 race and fell to 37th before winning. Last year, Elliott gave up second place to pit before a restart because of a loose left front wheel. He dropped to 36th before he came back to win.

“It’s a challenging place,” Elliott said of the Roval. “There’s just not a lot of forgiveness at that particular course. There’s nowhere to go if you make a mistake or run off course or whatever. It’s definitely a really fine balance.”

Even with those challenges, Elliott looks to Sunday’s race with excitement, reaffirming the mantra he had last year in embracing big moments.

“You better like having your back against the wall and have to perform, because if you ever want to win, that’s how it’s going to be,” he said.

Elliott also knows that Sunday’s race could be a roller-coaster affair with the differing strategies of playoff drivers. Some playoff drivers will go for points in each stage, while others will focus on winning the race.

What it means is that there may be times Elliott is shuffled to the middle of the pack due to the various strategies.

“You don’t want to sit there and count points, right?” he said of focusing on the playoff standings during the race. “But at the same time, you certainly want to be aware of what’s going on, at least leading it. And that’s kind of my approach. … The best way to get points is to go and win the stages. They offer 10 points to win each stage and that’s a lot.

“So, I would like to have both of those and would certainly like to have another (win) sticker. So, my goal is to retrieve all three.”

2. Just go win

Joining Kevin Harvick below the cutline heading into the Roval are Christopher Bell (-28 points from the cutline), William Byron (-44) and Alex Bowman (-52).

While Harvick could advance via points, Bell views his situation as needing to win to make the Round of 8.

“If we go out here and have an exceptional day, it’s still going to take some bad luck on the other competitors for us to make it,” Bell said this week at the Roval.

Bell could be one to watch because of his victory at the Daytona road course in February. He says that track is most similar to the Roval. That’s just one of a few road courses he’s had strong runs this season.

Bel finished second at Road America. At Watkins Glen, he was second on Lap 55 of the 90-lap race when contact from Kyle Larson caused Bell to drop back to 10th. Bell went on to finish seventh but the fallout from the incident continued afterward.

Bell’s focus is on the Roval and trying to ensure that all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars advance to the next round.

“I think this is a place that we all thought we can compete for a win,” Bell said. “I expect us to run good. Hopefully, we’ll be there at the end of the day.”

3. Next for the Next Gen car

Several Cup teams are scheduled to test the Next Gen car Monday and Tuesday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

For Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick, among others, it will be their first time to drive the car. Harvick said he had planned to be at the shop this week to figure out the shifting “so I can figure out how to get out of the garage stall and not embarrass myself.” The Next Gen car features a sequential five-speed shifter, a departure from the traditional four-speed H-pattern.

One of the concerns with the car has been the heat drivers have experienced.

“They’ve got to fix that,” Joey Logano said. “That’s a must-fix. It’s too hot, way too hot. If they don’t do anything, they’re going to have drivers passing out. … I’m interested to see what they come up with. It’s not a new issue with the cars. It’s been an issue for a while.”

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, notes that much work remains for the Next Gen car before it debuts in the Feb. 6 NASCAR Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

“This isn’t just an evolution,” Wilson said. “We’re taking the seat out of the current car and throwing the rest away. We can’t minimize that. … We’re going to be working on this car while we’re racing it next year and that’s to be expected. No one should be surprised.”

As for what he hopes to see from the test, Wilson said: “Hopefully, we continue to make some progress in the drivability characteristics of the car, steering system and, again, just see how they race together. We only have one data point with more than three cars on track together.

“Right now, we’re going to have multiple cars on track. See how they respond. See how they behave aerodynamically. We’ll be drinking through a firehose observing that.”

Other Next Gen tests are scheduled for November at the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval, December at Phoenix and January at Daytona.

Austin Cindric, who takes over the No. 2 car at Team Penske next season, will take part in next week’s test. He notes it’s important because it is the only test scheduled on a road course. Next year’s Cup schedule has six road course races.

4. New experience

With Todd Gordon retiring as a crew chief after this season, Ryan Blaney had to go through the process of finding and interviewing a candidate.

“That was a different deal for me,” Blaney said.

Blaney will have Jonathan Hassler as his crew chief next season. Hassler has served as Matt DiBenedetto’s crew chief since early June

Blaney said he went to Gordon for advice on questions to ask Hassler when they sat down to discuss the position.

“I had a list of questions I kind of wanted to ask (Hassler), both racing and personally,” Blaney said. “I asked Todd about it. Todd has plenty of experience (so I asked) ‘What’s a good thing to ask Jonathan from a crew chief standpoint? What do you want a driver to ask you from a crew chief standpoint?’

“One of the things that I thought was really good that Todd suggested: ‘List me some bad qualities you want to get better at.’ … I thought that was really good. You’ve got to get your problems out there in the open.

“I was the same. I told him some of my bad qualities, too, so we could help each other work on them. That’s the biggest thing is you’ve got to help each other on things you are weak at. We got that on the table. I thought that was a really good conversation.”

One area Blaney admits he’s improved in the car is remaining calm.

“It’s very easy to get frustrated when things don’t go your way, you get angry,” he said. “Then your mind is so focused on the bad thing that happened, you’re not worried about ‘I’ve got half this race left.’

“I think that comes with age and time. You figure out that not everybody is out to get you. Things happen and we have to be able to move on from it really quickly. That’s something that I think Todd and I have done really well over the last couple of years. We sat down and talked about it. I struggle with this. 

“A couple of years ago, I said I can get upset and animated and sometimes it’s hard for me to forget it and focus forward. We worked on that a lot. We’ve gotten a lot better at it and had that communication. That comes with time. Some of it is natural and some you have to work on.”

5. Crew switch

Roush Fenway Racing has switched its teams for the final five races of the season.

Crew chief Luke Lambert, his road crew and pit crew will move to Ryan Newman’s team.

Scott Graves, his road crew and pit crew will move to Chris Buescher’s team.

Buescher is 19th in points heading to the Roval. Newman ranks 26th. Newman will be replaced by Brad Keselowski in the No. 6 car next season. Keselowski will join the team as a driver/owner.

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