By Zack Albert, NASCAR.com /
MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Speed was in surplus for Chase Elliott on Sunday, and on multiple levels.
Elliott’s fleet-footed No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led a race-high 289 laps; he clinched a Championship 4 berth early, with nearly half of the Xfinity 500 remaining; and he was exiting the Martinsville Speedway grounds, showing up to support the Atlanta Braves in that evening’s Game 5 of the World Series.
Despite a roundabout day that included a late-race spin in the Cup Series Playoffs’ Round of 8 finale, Elliott emerged with the ultimate prize still within reach — a title shot in Sunday’s season-ending event at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM).
“Certainly hasn’t been pretty,” Elliott said after his 16th-place finish at the 0.526-mile track. “At the end of the day, having a shot next week is really all that matters. Frankly, I feel like you make it to Phoenix, it’s anybody’s game. Getting out there and being a part of the final four is a really big deal. It’s really hard to do. I’m really proud of my team for continuing to push through and battle some adversity. Just keep fighting.
“I’ve got a great group. I don’t want to go to battle with anybody else.”
Elliott will defend his crown in the Arizona desert next weekend, attempting to become the Cup Series’ first back-to-back champion since the postseason’s elimination era began in 2014. He’ll battle fellow Hendrick driver Kyle Larson and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. for the championship.
Elliott won last year’s title with a sweep of the final two races, plucking victories from Martinsville then Phoenix to seal it. Sunday, he appeared close to checking off the first leg of an encore, winning the first two stages and locking up his second straight Championship 4 reservation on the basis of points.
“That changed the complexion a bit,” said No. 9 crew chief Alan Gustafson. “You just race to win then.”
Elliott indeed was, but his No. 9 Chevy was knocked from victory contention after a bump from Brad Keselowski with 45 laps remaining. Keselowski, aiming to add a high finishing note to his last season with Team Penske, charged into the hunt with a bid to make the title field on points or with a victory. Elliott caught the worst of his Turn 3 over-drive.
“I mean, it’s tough. I was racing him hard on the outside. I wasn’t super surprised that he made a mistake,” Elliott said. “As hard as he hit me, I knew he just didn’t clean me out on purpose. I figure he wheel-hopped or something. I haven’t seen it. Really moving on was all that mattered.
“I had made some bad choices on adjustments, kind of got us behind. The real reason that happened was because I made a bad decision on what to do to our car. We started playing defense. When you start playing defense, you typically start crashing a lot of times, especially when guys need to win. I blame myself for leading us down the wrong path more than anything. I didn’t think it was on purpose either, so all good.”
Sunday’s shot at a second Martinsville grandfather clock trophy slipped away, but Elliott’s chance to realize a season-long goal still looms at Phoenix.
“Got as good a shot as anybody, I guess,” Gustafson said.