Chase Elliott placed third in both races at the Monster Mile in 2016. Both runs, he was just happy to make it there.
What a difference a year can make. Starting from 14th Sunday at Dover International Speedway, Elliott was confident and needed a solid run to stop a slump of four straight races running outside the top 20.
The No. 24 team did just that. It’s just that fifth place is starting to feel like a failure for a guy still seeking his first career victory.
In the opening 40 laps of Sunday’s AAA 400, Elliott made his way to just outside the top 10. But after a Lap 48 caution that saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pound the outside wall, Elliott was caught speeding on pit road. The No. 24 car was sent to the tail end of the field, making his day that much harder.
It was a long, steady process for the sophomore to make his way back to the front. By the end of Stage 2, Elliott snuck inside the top 10, earning four stage points by finishing seventh.
Over the next 80 laps, the No. 24 car got as high as third before fading in the middle of Stage 3. Then, his race got turned upside down with 71 laps to go when Regan Smith cut down a tire, bringing out the caution during the middle of green-flag pit stops. He and many others had pitted, catching them all a lap down.
Once again, Elliott was on the comeback trail. It took all he could muster just to charge back and finish fifth.
“It was very eventful,” he said post-race. “I don’t really know why that was or whatever. We finished, so that was good.”
Coming into Dover, Elliott had four consecutive runs of 24th or worse. Last week in Charlotte, he was out of the race in the opening 20 laps when a piece of Jeffrey Earnhardt‘s car went through the nose of the No. 24 car, starting an instantaneous fire, also collecting Brad Keselowski.
At Talladega, while battling in the top 10, the No. 24 car got airborne and was caught up in the “Big One,” finishing 30th.
So coming across the finish line fifth was a positive, Elliott’s best effort since a third at Martinsville Speedway back in March.
But despite the solid finish, he lost a position in the championship standings to race winner and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. Johnson now has three wins on the season.
Elliott has none.
“We didn’t have anything for Jimmie or [Kyle] Larson,” Elliott said. “We still need a little bit, and were fighting for that, and I’m trying to find it for myself, personally. Obviously, our cars are fast enough. My teammate has won a few times, which is good for the company. I just have to do my job and find whatever he has in his pocket that he brings to the racetrack each week. If not, you’re not going to beat him, and that’s just the facts.”
Elliott, 21, is now 54 races into his Cup Series career and still looking for his first trip to Victory Lane. In 2016, he had a pair of second-place finishes at Michigan International Speedway, runs that helped propel him into the second round of the playoffs before fading.
This season, Elliott has two third-place results to add to his collection of near misses. Now, those type of results don’t produce a “happy to be there” reaction.
He wants more.
“I wouldn’t call it good, but it’s a finish,” Elliott said. “We’re ready to take the next step and we need to. It’s time. We’ve been around long enough. We ought to be able to make that next step. There is no excuse not to.”