Elliott Returns To The Scene Of The First Time

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 3 2019
Chase Elliott has some great memories of the Watkins Glen International road course. He won his first Cup race there. He will start Sunday’s race from the pole. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

By John Sturbin/Senior Writer

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. _ Chase Elliott fondly recalls those hot summer days of his innocent youth, tagging along with his father, “Awesome Bill,” on the road to a racetrack and inevitable induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

And before young Chase could spell d-y-n-a-m-o-m-e-t-e-r, it was back to school time in Dawsonville, Ga.

“Devastating. I hated school really bad,” said Elliott, 23, whose classroom these hot summer days is the cockpit of a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “Every year, I felt like it started a couple of days earlier when you went back. I wasn’t happy about it, for sure. It’s just one of those things _ you have to do it.”

Similarly in the ever-evolving world of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, you have to live in the moment. That’s proven a bit difficult for Elliott this weekend at Watkins Glen International, site of his first Cup victory last Aug. 5. Chase led a race-high 52 of 90 laps and finished a dominating 7.56-seconds in front of runnerup Martin Truex Jr. of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Elliott, in fact, held off the relentless pursuit of Truex _ then the reigning Cup Series champion _ over the final 34 laps. Elliott’s lead, however, had shrunk to just 0.402-seconds on Lap 88. With his father serving as spotter, Chase nearly threw the script away when he missed the entry into Turn 1 on the final lap…only to quickly recover…and finally breathe easy as Truex ran out of fuel.

The Elliott family reveled on-site along with the Forever Elliott Faithful who sound the police siren at the Dawsonville Pool Room.

Wonderful memories, Chase confirmed Saturday during a presser in the media center at WGI, site of Sunday’s 34th annual Go Bowling at The Glen. The season’s second of three road-course events again is scheduled for 90 laps/220.5-miles around the iconic 2.45-mile/11-turn natural terrain layout (2:30 p.m. NBC Sports Network and MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), offering Elliott a shot at twisty history.

Victory would allow Elliott to join an elite foursome to have won back-to-back races at the track nestled in the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York. NASCAR Hall of Famers Mark Martin (1993-95) and Jeff Gordon (1997-99) both won three consecutive races here, while Tony Stewart went back-to-back in 2004-05. More recently, Australian Marcos Ambrose (2011-12), who no longer competes in Cup, is the only driver in the last 10 years to have won consecutive Cup races at WGI.

Historically, Chase posted his breakthrough Cup win nearly 35 years after his dad scored the first of his 44 Cup victories on the now-defunct Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway road-course. Almost lost in the hoopla was the fact that Chase gave team-owner Rick Hendrick his landmark 250th Cup win _ and only second of the 2018 season for the first-year Camaro ZL1. 

But excuse Chase if he and his dad haven’t spent much time reminiscing over an adult beverage or two. 

“I feel like it’s been kind of a normal week,” said Elliott, driver of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Camaro ZL1. “I think it’s important to do that. Everybody wants to talk about last year and that’s great. I’m glad that last year happened, for sure. I’m proud of it, but we celebrated it when it was time to celebrate it and now is not really the time to celebrate it. We had our time to do that in between here and wherever we went after that, and we did it and had plenty of it. It’s out of my system and it’s time to come back and try to run good.

“I feel like we had an OK first practice, but we have some work to do. I think it’s just dialing things in and it’s tough. Everybody is really close.”

Elliott stood fourth after Saturday’s first practice at 125.623 mph on a sheet led by Hendrick teammate Alex Bowman at 125.88 mph in the No. 88 Axalta Chevy. On cue, Elliott emerged atop of the final practice sheet with a hot lap of 126.901 mph after 24 laps, followed by Truex at 125.417 mph after 19 laps in the No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry.

On Saturday, Elliott won the pole for Sunday’s race with a lap at 127.297 mph

That speed bodes well for Elliott, who is looking for his first top-10 result since Pocono Raceway ‘s “Tricky Triangle” in Long Pond in June _ a stretch of seven races. Elliott secured a Playoff berth with his victory at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in May and followed that win with an impressive run of four consecutive top-five finishes. But since that last top-five (fourth place at Pocono on June 2) he’s recorded three DNFs _ on the road-course at Sonoma, Calif., Daytona International Speedway’s high-banked trioval and last weekend at Pocono-2.

Stat of the weekend _ Elliott led 400 laps during the opening 13 races but has paced only nine laps since.

Point-wise, Elliott is ranked eighth in the championship, two markers ahead of ninth-place Aric Almirola of Stewart Haas-Racing.

Elliott was 37that Sonoma Raceway in June, his day ending 30 laps early with an engine problem. But Elliott never has finished worse than 13that The Glen, earning 13thplace finishes in both previous starts before last year’s victory. And while Elliott doesn’t have any previous top-five finishes at Watkins Glen in the Xfinity Series, he did earn his first NASCAR win in a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at the Bowmanville, Ontario, road-course in 2013.

“It’s been a rough month or so,” Elliott said. “Some things were out of our hands and some things have been in our hands. Those are the frustrating ones, the ones that you can control. Making mistakes that we shouldn’t make…I shouldn’t make…and things of that nature. So, it’s about cleaning that stuff up; it happens. I can’t say I’m bogged down by it but I certainly want to get things going on the right path. We’re still in the summer stretch, so we still have time to do that. This is as good of place of any to get things going in the right direction. Anywhere will be fine. Here and now would be great.”

Elliott did note that winning here last year not only relieved the outside pressure of finally knocking out that first Cup victory, it also secured his place among the 16 Playoff contenders.

“That was honestly a nice add-on to the win,” Elliott said. “Really, I didn’t think about it until I got home and it felt nice to not have to worry about points racing through Richmond, which we’ve done I guess both years leading up to that. It’s not fun, going to Richmond and knowing you’re right on the cut of blowing a tire and ending your night and you’re out. Anything could happen, so it was just nice to go and not have to worry about that.

“But it’s way more than just having one sticker going into the Playoffs and knowing you’re in that first round. The guys you’re going to be racing probably have multiple wins by that point in the season to be really honest with you. It’s about getting those bonus points and knowing that when you get into the final 10 races, that’s going to help propel you to Homestead because that’s what your competitors are doing.”

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Truex are the winningest Cup road-course racers among the current field of drivers. Busch has two wins at both Watkins Glen (2008 and 2013) and Sonoma (2008 and 2015). Truex has four wins as well _ one at Watkins Glen (2017) and three of the last four at Sonoma (2013, 2018-19). Reigning Cup champion and current point-leader Joey Logano of Team Penske is the only active driver to have swept both Xfinity and Cup road-course trophies at WGI in a season (2015).

“Like anybody, I think there’s been certain tracks so far this year that have suited us better than others,” said Elliott, addressing NASCAR’s latest lower horsepower/higher downforce rules package. “At those places, we’ve competed and we’ve been good enough at times to win. Alex (Bowman) won at a 1.5-mile track, so yeah, I think we can compete at certain places and other places we have work to do. So, we’ll just see how it plays along.

“I know the results haven’t shown it, but there have been some upgrades that I think will be helpful come Playoff time and hopefully more to come. Everybody is making upgrades, so we’ll see.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 3 2019
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