Sunday’s (March 24) STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway had shades of 2017 for Chase Elliott.
After leading 49 laps and being in a position to put the bumper to eventual winner Brad Keselowski in the closing laps, Elliott wasn’t able to close the gap in the final stretch and settled for a runner-up result, his best career finish at the half-mile short-track.
— Hendrick Motorsports (@TeamHendrick) March 24, 2019
“I tried to move up and root (Keselowski) off the bottom at the beginning of the run,” he said. “That was probably my best shot. There early, I felt like I was a little better than him taking off, and then I thought he got a little better than me through the mid stage. Then we kind of evened out. That one run I was able to get by him, it was definitely a slight advantage to being up front, being able to work traffic your way.”
But Keselowski’s No. 1 pit stall aided him in winning the race off pit road multiple times, choosing the preferred lane on restarts and eventually, driving away just far enough to have a buffer between him and Elliott’s No. 9.
“I felt like our cars were pretty close,” he said. “Then it was a matter of how we hit our marks. It was really easy to mess up and it was about who strung together two corners lap after lap after lap. If you could do that, you could catch the other one. It was really hard to do but I felt like we were really close to him. And at times I thought we were a little better for sure.”
After gaining the lead on lap 325, Keselowski later took it back and was able to see how Elliott ran his respective line. In the closing stages, Elliott tried to diamond the corner and was gaining time, but it was too little too late.
“I tried to move up, get some runs,” he said. “Moved up with about five to go, was making a little time, but obviously not enough time. Was just trying to get to his bumper. Thought I could root him up out of the way or something. It was going to be very hard to drive up next to him and pass him. I was just going to have to get to his bumper, play some games, and hope it went my way.”
The Dawsonville, Georgia native was was pleased with the speed in his car for all 500 laps en route to his second top 10 and first top five of the season, especially following a disappointing weekend in Fontana.
“We had a really solid car and this was the best shot we had to win to date this season,” he said. “When you have cars like that and performances like we did today, you really have to capitalize. Obviously with our struggle last week at Fontana, that was a bummer. To be able to come here, run inside the top five all day long and be, I thought, as competitive as the winner of the race was I think an improvement.”
If all goes according to plan for Elliott, he’ll be in the playoffs challenging for a spot in the Championship Four the next time the Cup Series comes to the paperclip. That’s not lost on him.
“Ultimately this is an important racetrack,” he said. “Coming back here in the fall, hopefully we can run like we did today, hopefully a little better and hopefully we’re in the deal to make it matter.”
Elliott and the No. 9 team will look to build upon their runner-up finish next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. The O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 is scheduled to go green on Sunday, March 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET.