Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott pleased by ‘best shot to win to date’ but knows work remains

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – He was the only driver to outduel the dominant No. 2 Ford of race winner Brad Keselowski. He had his best shot to win a race in more than five months. He fortified the allegiance of fans at the NASCAR Cup series’ shortest track, which already has been a special place early in his career.

Ultimately, though, Chase Elliott knew a runner-up finish Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, one of only six short-track races on the circuit, will have a limited shelf life.

Hendrick Motorsports still must prove it can excel at the larger tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway that make up the bulk of the schedule and play a large role in determining the championship.

“From here? No,” Elliott said with a smile and a slight chuckle when asked if there were any momentum that could carry over to the 1.5-mile speedway that’s next on the schedule. “No.”

How about fueling some optimism that his No. 9 Chevrolet will be faster at Texas?

“I sure hope so,” he said.

There should at least be a more positive vibe in this week’s team debriefs after Elliott led 49 laps for his first top five since his Oct. 21 victory at Kansas Speedway. It also was Hendrick’s first top five of 2019 through six races (the longest the organization has gone without a top five to start a season since 2000).

It was only the second race of the past 10 that the No. 9 Chevrolet has led.

“We had a really, really solid car and this was the best shot we had to win to date this season, so when you have cars like that and performances like we did today, you really need to capitalize,” Elliott said. “And obviously with our struggle last week at Fontana (where he finished 11th), that was a bummer, so to come back and be able to run inside the top five all day long and be as competitive as the winner of the race was an improvement.

“And ultimately this is an important racetrack so coming back here in the fall, hopefully we can run like we did today, maybe a little better, and hopefully we’re still part of the deal to make it matter.”

Keselowski took the lead for the final time when his pit crew got him out ahead of Elliott under caution on Lap 374. He never passed Elliott under green, and Keselowski figured he wouldn’t after Elliott took the lead from him with 175 laps remaining shortly after a restart.

“I thought Chase was probably the best car most of the day,” said Keselowski, who led 446 of 500 laps. “I thought that might be the end of our day, but I was able to learn a few things from him and kind of dissect his strengths and weaknesses and make some adjustments of our own and come back out and be a little bit better for it. Pit crew did an excellent job gaining or retaining our track position all day, which is critical here at this racetrack.

“We were able to keep our track position, and that was so, so key to being able to win today because I think Chase, if he’d have been out front that run, he would have drove away from the field with what I saw from his car.”

Brad Keselowski held off Chase Elliott for his second win of the season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Elliott slipped to third behind Keselowski and Kyle Busch on his last stop under yellow. He made a nifty move to retake second on the outside after Busch ran into Keselowski and slowed with 43 laps remaining.

He was making ground in the final 10 laps, but aerodynamics (rarely a factor at Martinsville but in play because of this year’s high downforce) seemed to factor into his inability to reach Keselowski’s bumper.

“I tried to root him off the bottom at the beginning of the run,” Elliott said. “That was probably my best shot. I felt like I was a little better than him taking off. Then I thought he got a little better than me through the midstage and then I feel like we kind of evened out.

“That one run I was able to get by him, it was definitely a slight advantage to being out front. Moved up with about five (laps) to go, was making a little time. But obviously not enough time and was just trying to get back to his bumper. Thought maybe I could root him out of the way. It was going to be really hard to drive up next to him and pass him. I was just going to have to get to his bumper and play some games and hope it went my way.”

At least there was hope of being in the game when NASCAR returns to Southwest Virginia in seven months for the opener of the Round of 8, which Elliott nearly won in 2017.

“Have to just improve and when we come back here,” he said. “This is an important race if you’re in the hunt, so hopefully we are.”

Chase Elliott hopes to follow Dale Earnhardt Jr. in another way

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Chase Elliott soon will inherit Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s official mantle as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, and he hopes to eventually acquire an ancillary skill of that immense sway, too.

As the first national commercial campaign to solely feature the No. 9 Chevrolet driver for Mountain Dew rolls out during tonight’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Elliott is hoping he can channel the comfort that Earnhardt developed in front of the camera during more than two decades as a high-profile endorser and spokesman who was voted Most Popular Driver from 2003-17.

“I think that’s one thing that Dale has gotten really good at it is his acting in commercials,” Elliott said Friday during the taping of a NASCAR on NBC Podcast that will air next week. “He has done a really good job of just going into those situations and just not caring as much.

“That’s how you have to be. If you go in there, and you’re really timid, it’s going to show on camera, and I’m certainly not to the level that he’s at. I’m not an actor. Acting is not my favorite thing to do by any means. I think it’s something I certainly would love to get better at, shooting these 30-second, 60-second commercials can help.”

Though Elliott is the only driver in the new spot, he has no speaking lines, which is probably how he prefers it because he hasn’t translated his low-key personality into carrying a scene.

“The best thing they can do is not have me act a whole lot,” Elliott, 22, said with a laugh. “So maybe one day I’ll get better at it. For now, that’s what it’s going to have to be.

“I really didn’t have to do a whole lot of acting in this spot, which is great. Those are the kind that typically turn out the best when you don’t have to put on a fake face or whatever to do it. From my end, it’s very laid back, and I think people will see that.”

Though his personality also can be reserved and introspective, Earnhardt has grown at ease with comedic delivery and seeming natural in off-kilter situations.

“He’s done such a good job with that, it’s been fun to watch,” said Elliott, who worked with Earnhardt in a few commercials while driving for JR Motorsports from 2014-15. “Luckily, I’ve had a chance to do a couple of productions with him and kind of see how he goes about it, and I think there’s something to be learned there.”

The main takeaway is that being true to one’s self is the easiest way to come across well because “if you go into those situations being uncomfortable, it’s not going to look good on camera,” Elliott said.

In the second half of his Cup career before joining NBC Sports Group as an analyst, Earnhardt took ownership of his likeness and became more assertive and selective as a brand endorser.

With an election as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver seeming a virtual lock starting this season, Elliott also would like to “have a little more say-so” in how his popularity is leveraged by sponsors in the future.

“Hopefully and that’s something you can earn over time, but you can’t come in demanding, ‘Hey, I’m doing this, I’m not doing this,’” Elliott said. “You have to be respectful of that and understand what they want vs. what I want and try to balance the two out.

“Yeah, I think our partners have been receptive and listened, and they see the person that I am, and I’m not a real loud individual in general. So I think they see that. That does make it difficult to do commercials and things, just because it’s hard to express that on camera. We’ve kind of found ways to do that.”

During the rest of the podcast, Elliott also discussed:

–The wisdom of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart and the varying styles of sports leadership;

–The email with tips for racing Road America that he sent his father, Bill, as he prepares for his first NASCAR race in six years next weekend;

–The importance of finding another gear with the No. 9 when the playoffs begin next month.

The episode will be available Wednesday wherever you download podcasts.

F1 star Daniel Ricciardo introduced to NASCAR world in Texas

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Formula 1 star Daniel Ricciardo made his first visit to a NASCAR Cup Series race at Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 from Texas Motor Speedway, as the Australian driver for Red Bull Racing was a guest of Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott.

Ricciardo had told NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas last month in Austin he planned to make a return visit to Texas to see Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s final start at the track as a full-time Cup driver.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well,” Ricciardo told NBCSN. “Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Elliott welcomed Ricciardo around, and he took in the atmosphere pre-race. He met Joey Logano, among others, before having the chance to see Earnhardt and complete his idea of doing the helmet swap.

Both Earnhardt and Ricciardo signed each other’s helmets, and Earnhardt, who will join NBC Sports as an analyst for its NASCAR coverage in 2018, said he looks forward to attending a Formula 1 race next year.

Some of the other NASCAR posts Ricciardo appeared in on Sunday are below.

Ricciardo also posted a couple photos to his Instagram story on Sunday.

Chase Elliott wasn’t buying Denny Hamlin’s explanation for wreck

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MARTINSVILLE, Virginia – As the boos reigned down from the Martinsville Speedway grandstands, Chase Elliott stepped away from an awaiting TV interview and ambled toward the noise.

The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet began waving his arms up and down, beckoning the crowd for more juice – and jeers.

Their target was Southwest Virginia’s sudden Public Enemy No. 1 and driver of the No. 11 Toyota, Denny Hamlin, who was being interviewed on a large videoboard to the great derision of several thousand fans who lingered after the jaw-dropping, car-slamming conclusion of the First Data 500.

“These fans have been coming here for a long time, and they know when someone gets wrecked, and when someone has a nice fight for the lead, and that wasn’t one,” Elliott said. “It was unnecessary.”

Three laps from getting his ticket to the championship round punched, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was punted from the lead entering the third turn on the 0.526-mile oval. Elliott had taken the lead from Brad Keselowski during a restart on Lap 497 of a scheduled 500 laps before the contact with Hamlin, who led the next seven laps before getting moved aside by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch on the final lap and taking seventh.

Elliott managed to finish in 27th, but his title chances are win or bust in the next two races at Texas and Phoenix – which is why he rammed Hamlin’s car multiple times on the cooldown lap.

That prompted both drivers to exit their cars and engage in a heated argument on the backstretch (video above) before driving back to the pits for interviews.

“He said somebody was pushing him, but it wasn’t two car lengths between him and the next guy,” Elliott said. “So, my momma always said if you don’t have anything nice (to say), not to say anything at all. So, it’s not even worth my time. We’ll just go on to Texas.

“We had a great car today and we had an opportunity. We had a good restart there at the end and felt like I was doing what I needed to do. And I can’t control his decisions and whatever the hell that was.”

Crew chief Alan Gustafson chalked it up to being an incident involving high stakes and the shortest track on the circuit.

“It’s pretty intense,” he said. “A lot on the line, so anything can happen. It’s just racing at Martinsville. A lot on the line. I think we had one of the best cars here and came home with nothing.

“I’m cool with it, but when we have (Hamlin’s) back tires jacked up going into probably (Turn) 3 at Texas … that will be a bigger corner. Then just be good with that, too.”

Elliott again was good enough to break through for his first victory in NASCAR’s premier series. Rebounding from a miserable test at Martinsville two weeks ago, the team brought a new Chevy, and Elliott responded. He qualified third and led 123 laps.

“He’s done an incredible job,” Gustafson said of Elliott. “It’s unfortunate that race wins have eluded us, because I think that’s the only thing we haven’t been able to do this year. We’ve done everything else. I thought he did a great job.”

Elliott had to get rough, too, making contact on his pass of Keselowski (who had taken the outside lane on the restart). Keselowski skidded up the track but held on for fourth.

“The thing we all like about this track is you can race people hard and have contact and not crash them,” Gustafson said. “Look, I know Brad isn’t happy about what Chase did to Brad. I’m sure he’s not. I’m sure the team is not. But at the end of the day, he didn’t wreck him.

“But what can you do? You race as hard as you can. Things happen.”

Elliott said his battle with Keselowski was “as clean as we could race each other … a hard fought battle for the lead,” while with Hamlin “that was not a battle at all. That was just a wreck.”

“What he did was unnecessary,” Elliott said of Hamlin, a five-time winner at Martinsville who later tweeted an apology. “The guy’s been doing this long enough. He’s won a lot of races here. There’s no reason for that. He knows the deal, how this race works, and he knows how Martinsville is.

“I didn’t race him dirty at all. I don’t know what his problem was. What happened in Turn 3 was over the line.”

Friday’s schedule at Martinsville Speedway — all about the Trucks

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This weekend’s racing action at Martinsville Speedway begins with the attention focused on the Camping World Truck Series.

The Trucks have two practice sessions today. They’ll qualify and race Saturday.

The Cup Series isn’t on track until Saturday.

(All times are Eastern)

10:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck garage open

1 – 1:55 p.m. — First Truck practice (Fox Sports 1)

3 – 3:55 p.m. – Final Truck practice (FS1)