HAMPTON, Ga. — When Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron won early in the season, it was easy to wonder what was up with Chase Elliott’s team.
But since the series first visited Atlanta in March — a race Elliott finished sixth — he and his team have shown a level consistency that has been rare in this topsy-turvy season.
Competitors knew going into this season, the first with the Next Gen car, that there could be big swings in performance from week to week. But what Elliott and his No. 9 team have done is impressive.
Since that Atlanta race in March, Elliott has a series-high three wins, including Sunday’s victory at Atlanta, 11 top-10 finishes in 15 races and led a series-best 583 laps.
The one driver who has come close to matching Elliott in consistency this year is Ross Chastain, but the narrative has changed on Chastain after incidents with Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and others.
It’s Chastain’s aggressiveness that is being talked about more than what he’s done since the first Atlanta race — two wins, eight top-five finishes and 11 top 10s.
While it’s easy to declare Elliott a championship favorite — or co-favorite with Chastain — seven races remain until the playoffs begin. Much can happen in that time.
But Elliott’s team has show an ability to get stronger.
“I think they’re on more of a role as far as figuring out how to get their car in position in these races to get the wins,” said Jeff Gordon, vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. “Everything’s got to come together, pit stops, everything. You’ve got to think of the years that (crew chief Alan Gustafson) and Chase have been together. The team in general, just not a lot of turnover within that team, so they’re a very solid group.
“They showed it two years ago when they won the championship and showed at the end last year, going all the way to to the final four and battling for the championship. … I think they’re just following up that consistency that they just have as a group.”
For Elliott, the win came a week after he shouldered the blame for losing at Road America to Tyler Reddick. Elliott said he “made a couple of mistakes” late in that race.
Elliott and the team had no such miscues this past weekend and celebrated another win.
“To finish it off was a big deal because I feel like we had the best car, and with today’s generation of car and the scrutiny behind them, everybody is really close,” Alan Gustafson said. “To get a car that is above (the competition) is a big deal, and you want to pay that off and cash it out, and we were able to do it.”
And do it at Elliott’s home track, giving him his first Cup victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“I’ve witnessed guys win at their home tracks, and you can always tell it means a lot to them, but until you start competing somewhere at a sport’s highest stage like this, I’m not sure you fully understand the meaning of it and what it could mean to you,” Elliott said. “So to be able to have this moment is really special and one I’m very grateful for.”
NASCAR’s decision not to penalize Noah Gragson during the event for wrecking Sage Karam in the July 2 Xfinity race at Road America drew mixed response from some veteran Cup drivers this past weekend.
Gragson turned Karam on a straightway in retaliation for earlier contact. The incident collected 11 other cars and caused nearly $250,000 worth of damage to cars from three Xfinity teams collected in the incident.
Four days later, NASCAR penalized Gragson 30 points and fined him $35,000. NASCAR noted it did not penalize Gragson during the race because of the beating and banging that took place in the event. Series officials wanted to see if there was a mechanical issue that could have caused Gragson to turn into Karam.
Kevin Harvick was not sold on NASCAR’s explanation.
“Sounded like a politician’s statement,” Harvick said this past weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “I don’t know any other way to put it. Sitting up in that tower, you’ve got to make those decisions. Surely, somebody with some racing history. I don’t even know who sits in that tower, but, somebody that has driving history could figure out what happened. Everybody that was watching could.”
Denny Hamlin also raised issues with NASCAR’s deliberate approach before penalizing Gragson.
“As soon as the race goes back green, they run one lap and he’s running up to speed,” Hamlin said. “You’ve got to bring him in at that point. I think waiting until midweek is probably being too reactive.
“They’re reacting to media outcry, driver outcry, ‘This is wrong. Should have done something.’ Then they reacted to it. I think if you see it and it’s wrong, then you’ve just got to react in the race. That’s the proper way to go about it.”
Is there a situation where it’s better to wait before potentially issuing a penalty?
“No,” Hamlin said. “Why? I don’t understand why we would wait … especially if you see something blatant like that. You have to react right away.”
But not everyone agrees with that idea.
Brad Keselowski is fine with NASCAR taking its time before potentially issuing any penalties.
“Whether it’s NASCAR or any other sanctioning body in sports or law, I think when in doubt, it’s always a good idea to press pause,” he said. “And there’s good reasons to have doubt … maybe there was something that was broke on it. I didn’t think the camera angles were all that great, personally.
“So I understand 100% why they would push pause, and I think it’s a good practice for NASCAR, or really any of us in life. If you don’t have all the information, press pause before you have a reaction that has serious consequences. So I don’t see an issue with that.”
Now that Atlanta’s two races on the reconfigured and revamped track this season are done, a look at how the superspeedway package changed the racing there:
More than 55 different cars were collected in incidents in the two races this year. That’s 11 times more than than five cars collected in incidents in both Atlanta Cup races in 2021.
The total this year is nearly four times the number of cars involved in incidents in the seven races at Atlanta before this season. A total of 14 cars, an average of two per race, were involved in an incident in the seven races form 2016-21.
There were 72 lead changes in Atlanta’s two races this year. In 2021, there were a total of 21 lead changes in the two races. The track had a total of 68 lead changes in its last four races before this season.