AVONDALE, Ariz. — In 2020, Chase Elliott finished the season on a rampage, winning three of the final five races to win his first Cup Series Championship. On Sunday, Elliott hopes to win his second title.
Although he might not be on the tear he was on two years ago, Elliott’s arguably had the strongest year of his career. He’s won a series-high five races with all seemingly coming in a different way. Elliott won a Dover race postponed to Monday after 78 laps and won at Nashville on a late restart after several delays.
At Atlanta in July, Elliott fought off Corey LaJoie on the final lap to win his first hometown race, just an hour south of Dawsonville. Two weeks later, Elliott finished third at Pocono but won after disqualifications to Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, the initial top-two finishers. And at Talladega, Elliott survived a two-lap dash to punch his ticket into the Round of 8.
Overall, Elliott has 20 top-10s — just one short of last year’s total. But Elliott’s strong season has slowed in the Playoffs, recording just three top 10s including the Talladega victory.
“I feel like we have as good of an opportunity as anybody,” Elliott said during Championship 4 Media Day. “Our Playoffs has been up and down, probably more down than it has been up really for how we ran leading into it. But when I sit back and I look at this weekend, the way this format is, the way the Final 4 works, if you’re in, you have a shot, number one. Number two, we haven’t wrote the ending yet, right? The narrative is there for you to make it whatever you want to and however you execute your day into being.”
Elliott, admittedly, was concerned about each race in the Round 0f 8. He finished 21st at Las Vegas and and 14th at Homestead-Miami before finally cracking the top 10 at Martinsville.
Elliott’s 46 Playoff points, earned from his race wins, stage wins and regular-season championship, served as his fallback as he limped into the Championship 4 by just four points.
“If we hadn’t had the regular season that we had, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Elliott said. “We’re fortunate to have been on the good end of that this year, being able to have a good regular season. Have never really had a regular season that good before, so that was great. Super proud of our whole team for accomplishing some race wins and ultimately that regular season points deal. Those 15 points combined with the wins that we had were crucial.”
The last nine races are now completely out the window. All four championship drivers — Elliott, Christopher Bell, Joey Logano and Ross Chastain — are on a level playing field.
Elliott’s only goal is to bring Hendrick Motorsports its 15th title and third in a row after Kyle Larson won last year.
“He’s excited. He’s ready. We’ll just put any of the bad luck or inconsistencies we’ve had leading up to this race behind us because it’s all about Sunday,” said Rick Hendrick, team owner. “It’s going to be a hard-fought battle. There are four really good teams and four great drivers. Anything can happen when you go out there in a one-race deal.”
But the dynamic of Sunday’s race will be different for Hendrick. Elliott is racing for only the driver’s championship, while Larson made the owner’s championship with his win at Homestead-Miami.
Hendrick wants both drivers to win, but knows it’ll be difficult.
“In an ideal situation is if we could go out and run one-two and get them both,” Hendrick said. “We’re not going to approach the race any different than we have any week. Both cars are going to try to win. We’ll just go out and do the best we can and see where it all ends up.”
“The best thing that could happen is one of us wins the race and the other one runs second,” Elliott said. “And then you check all boxes and we all go home happy. That would be choice number one for me. I think that’s very feasible.”
Elliott has had his fair share of success at Phoenix, furthering his confidence ahead of Sunday’s race. He’s finished in the top-five five times, including his 2020 victory.
In the spring, Elliott finished ninth to pace HMS.
“A lot has changed since the spring. I felt like we were solid,” Elliott said. “I think setups have certainly migrated in different directions from where we were then. Everyone has gotten more similar as the year has progressed.
“You want to have pace. Having pace in your car and being fast gives you a lot of opportunities in different ways. But there are other ways to win, and there are other ways to lose, too. I think it all has to go your way — good timing, good people.
“What makes a difference is how you prepare this week and how you look ahead to the weekend, the decision-making, what you want to bring setup-wise, how you execute your practice on Friday, how you do in qualifying Saturday, giving yourself a good or a bad pit selection for your event on Sunday, executing a good 312 laps.”
Crew chief Alan Gustafson is confident in Elliott’s chances Sunday, but he belives the team still has some work to do.
“Our car is decent. It’s not perfect,” Gustafson said. “I do feel like it’s competitive, and we need to make it a little bit better. Some good attributes, some things we want to make better.
“We’ve done it the last couple years. We did some things well and did some things not so well that we need to improve on.”
Last season, Elliott was in this exact spot. He won two races and made the championship, where led 94 laps and had a car capable enough to repeat as champion. Elliott led with 65 laps to go when a caution came out during the pit cycle, changing his pit strategy.
In a later caution, Larson gained four spots on the money stop to take the lead for the final restart and sink Elliott’s hopes.
Elliott hopes that won’t be the case this year.
“You have to have everything go your way,” Elliott said. “I look at that race last year, I felt like we were — just from my perspective, because I lived it firsthand, I feel like we had a really good car and we were in a good spot. We just got the lead there on that long green flag run. The caution cycle comes out right there as we were all in our pit exchange. The next thing you know, the whole complexion of the race changed.”
Elliott will start Sunday’s championship race fifth, behind Logano, who won the pole. Bell and Chastain qualified 17th and 25th, respectively.
The race is set for 3 p.m. ET on NBC.