Hendrick Motorsports put two cars in the top 10 during Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway. One of those drivers led 42 laps and finished second. The other had a solid, if quiet, race and took the checkered flag in eighth.
Maybe it is not a surprise that two of the Hendrick drivers found success at Chicago after being almost invisible throughout the summer. Jimmie Johnson has made an art form out of elevating his game once the playoffs begin.
Yet Johnson was not the Hendrick driver who contended for the win on Sunday. That was Chase Elliott. Surprised?
“Our NAPA Chevy was solid,” Elliott said after the race. “It was a lot better than we’ve been. So, I think that’s a testament to this team and the lack of quit that everybody has. So this is the time of year to go, and we gave it our all today.”
Elliott’s performance at Chicagoland was indeed better than the No. 24 team’s recent races. After nearly winning the Daytona 500, Elliott reeled off six top 10s in the next seven races.
The only misstep in that streak was a 12th-place result at Phoenix International Raceway. That race got out of the No. 24 team’s hands after a late-race caution shuffled the running order, but only after Elliott led 106 laps. Holding down second place in the point standings, the sophomore driver looked like a top championship threat.
Then, things started to go wrong.
Elliott had a miserable month of May, capped off by a crash just 20 laps into the Coca-Cola 600. But the most disastrous race of his season to date is the Brickyard 400. A blown engine at Indianapolis Motor Speedway relegated Elliott to 39th, earning him minimum points for the event. To complicate things even more, Kasey Kahne scored a surprise victory, which allowed him to leapfrog Elliott in the playoff standings.
Kahne’s win made him the 12th playoff-eligible winner of the year. When Kyle Busch broke through the following week at Pocono Raceway, Elliott was suddenly on shaky ground for the postseason.
Going into Indianapolis, Elliott was one of five winless drivers in position to make the playoffs on points. He also had a 115-point cushion over the first driver below the postseason cut line. After the engine failure and victories by Kahne and Busch, Elliott was fighting for one of only three open playoff spots. Worse yet, his points cushion was down to 39 points.
Elliott was able to avoid any more serious trouble before the playoffs began. However, he was not able to notch a win that would have secured his postseason spot. Additionally, the No. 24 team did not look like a title favorite anymore. Of Elliott’s 14 top 10s in the regular season, only four came in the 10 races leading up to the playoffs. That same stretch of races included only one top-five effort.
Perhaps most tellingly, Elliott went the last 20 races of the regular season without leading 10 or more laps in any race. When the playoff field was set last weekend at Richmond Raceway, the No. 24 team had the look of a team that had backed into the postseason due to its hot start.
Sunday’s race at Chicagoland presented a solid opportunity for Elliott. He nearly won his first race there one year ago, until a late caution and subsequent pit stop put Martin Truex Jr. in control of the race. Truex took the victory again this year, but Elliott was the biggest positive surprise.
The No. 24 team outran Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin during the last green flag run. Harvick and Hamlin both have a good chance to race for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. The fact that Elliott could run with them on an intermediate track bodes well for the No. 24 squad. Elliott also avoided making any major mistakes on pit road, like the one that took Busch completely out of contention.
Now sixth in the playoff standings, 33 points above the cut line, Elliott has a good chance at avoiding an early exit from the postseason. The real question is whether or not Chicagoland was just one good performance, or if Elliott is re-emerging as a title contender.
Boosted by a good result to start the 2016 playoffs, Elliott did a fine job at advancing out of the first round last year. But then everything fell apart in the round of 12.
At Charlotte, Elliott had a superb run going, leading 103 laps. However, the No. 24 car got wiped out in a restart melee on lap 259. Things got even worse for Elliott the following week at Kansas, where a tire issue while leading took him out of contention. A 12th-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway was not enough to keep him in the game.
Elliott therefore remains somewhat of a wild card in 2017. If he can run well at Dover and Charlotte again, then the No. 24 team might be a tougher competitor than many would have guessed. Yet Elliott’s relative lack of playoff points means that he will have to win sooner or later if he really wants to make a deep championship run. If Elliott needs any inspiration, he can always look to Johnson. Nobody in NASCAR today can flip the switch and dominate the postseason after a quiet summer like him. Perhaps Elliott will take after his veteran teammate.