TALLADEGA, Ala. -- It’s been a year since Chase Elliott won a Cup Series race, a drought that played a role in NASCAR’s most popular driver missing the playoffs in what’s guaranteed to be the worst season of his career.
As Elliott returns for today’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, site of his last victory, there’s no sugarcoating his season.
“I am disappointed in his season, for sure,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I think Chase is an unbelievable talent, the most popular driver, under a lot of pressure from the fans, not as much from the sponsors -- they want to win. I feel like he deserves to win races, he’s got the talent. So we’ve just got to get him in that position.”
It fell apart for Elliott before the third race of the season when he broke his leg in a snowboarding accident in Colorado ahead of the race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Elliott missed six races to put him in an enormous hole, and then he was suspended for a seventh for intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600 in May.
He spent the rest of the regular season desperately trying to win a race to avoid missing out on the playoffs for the first time in his career. Elliott failed to qualify -- his 35-race winless streak dates to last fall’s Talladega race -- and a career-worst 17th is the best he can finish in the final Cup standings. The 2020 champion never has finished lower than 10th and made it to the title-deciding finale the last three years.
Hendrick has given Elliott a directive to win a race before the end of the season to carry momentum into 2024.
“I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed for him. I’m disappointed for his sponsors,” Hendrick said. “But at the same time, I’ve told him: ‘Look, we’re in this for the long haul. I hope you are going to retire here. And we’re going to win championships and races. And this was something that set us back.’
“But you know, I can’t tell the guys they can’t have a life on a snowboard, and (s---) happens.”
While not eligible for the driver championship, Elliott can still win an owner’s title for Hendrick Motorsports, which last week celebrated its 300th Cup win when William Byron won at Texas to become the first driver to advance into the round of eight of the playoffs.
Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet goes into today’s race ranked ninth, two points behind Hendrick teammate Kyle Larson and one point ahead of Tyler Reddick of 23XI Racing. Just like in the drivers’ playoffs, eight cars advance to the next round of the owners’ championship.
Elliott finds the intensity the same, even though he’s not racing for a second Cup title.
“Nothing really feels any different, which is kind of odd,” Elliott said. “It feels like just another playoff year really.”
Elliott is one of nine drivers who won a race last year but have not won this season. Jeff Gordon, now the vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, said he’s stressed to the No. 9 team how important winning the owner’s championship is to the organization.
But just like the boss did, Gordon said Elliott’s season has been a company-wide disappointment that few would deny.
“Yeah, it’s a disappointment. Even Chase would admit it’s disappointing. I think everyone on the team would say we are disappointed,” Gordon said. “It’s not that we’re disappointed because we think somebody’s not putting in enough effort. It’s disappointing because they haven’t been able to find that thing, that it factor to make it click. Why are they not showing up and having more speed? Or not being able to fully execute? There’s just been things they haven’t been able to overcome.”
Gordon said it’s been eye-opening how far back a driver can fall in NASCAR’s second-year Next Gen car after missing a race or more.
“I think back prior to the Next Gen car, you could easily be out a few weeks, jump right back into” it, Gordon said. “That doesn’t seem to be the case with this car. You are always playing catch-up.”
Gordon also said Elliott’s decision to remain in his hometown of Dawsonville, Ga., “can be a challenge” in team-building, but the organization doesn’t believe in changing a driver’s approach to his career.
“We fully embrace and support Chase in how he finds success,” Gordon said. “We want to push all of our guys to be more engaged and Chase being in Dawsonville, that has the ability to have less engagement. Chase’s time is valuable. He is being pulled and asked to do more than anyone in the sport right now. We try to respect that, but at the same time push him, especially when you aren’t getting the results you want.”
Ryan Blaney previously has been in danger of his championship chances ending at Talladega, and the Team Penske driver responded in 2019 with a win on the superspeedway to advance into the round of eight.
Now 11 points below the cutline headed into Talladega, Blaney does not believe he has to win today. He was caught speeding last week at Texas and later crashed and finished 28th.
“We don’t have to go win Talladega,” Blaney said. “We’re not in that spot. I was surprised I was only 11 points down after I saw the points after I wrecked, which shocked me. I thought I was going to be way more out of it.”
Talladega is considered a wild-card race winnable by just about anyone in the field. It’s the middle race of the round of 12, with the field of eight formally decided next Sunday on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“You still have two races to try to go run well and make up the points you lost,” Blaney said. “You’re going to find yourself behind at some point in the playoffs — whether it’s in Round 1, Round 2 or Round 3 — you’re going to find yourself behind at some point and you’re going to have to find a way to make up points and have really good days. I feel like I’ve been in this spot before.”
Notes: Blaney and Brad Keselowski, a six-time Talladega winner, are the FanDuel Sportsbook betting favorites. … Kyle Busch sold his Truck Series team this week to Spire Motorsports but said Saturday he will still run five truck races next year. He also said KBM will continue to exist but as an outlet for his 8-year-old son to race. The four drivers below the cutline headed into Sunday are Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, Blaney and Busch.