In only his fifth NASCAR Cup Series season, Chase Elliott is proving himself a road course master, easily besting the field Sunday at the Charlotte ROVAL and more importantly, the 24-year old continues to establish himself as a perennial championship contender.
Elliott’s win in the Bank of America ROVAL 400 Playoff race was his fourth consecutive road course victory, a mark of excellence shared only with NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, who won six straight road course races. It’s his second consecutive win in this race and Sunday’s trophy is an automatic qualifier for Elliott into the three-race Playoff Round of 8, which begins next week at Kansas Speedway.
Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet tied teammate William Byron for most laps led – a race best 26 laps on the day including the final 18, as he held off runner-up Joey Logano by a healthy 3.895-seconds to earn his third win of the year.
Erik Jones, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five. Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron was sixth, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Hendrick driver Alex Bowman, rookie Cole Custer and Clint Bowyer, who was trying to race his way into the next Playoff round but did not move forward despite the top 10 effort.
“Just had another really fast NAPA Camaro and really appreciate the effort," Elliott said. “Road courses have been fortunate to us the last few trips, but I feel like we just try to get a little better every time, tweak on the small things. I feel like I tweaked on small things and got a little better than I was here last year, which was good.
“Just really proud of the effort."
The ROVAL was the second round Playoff cut-off race – sending eight drivers forward and eliminating title hopes for four. None of those four drivers - including reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch - still needing to gain points to advance, were able to improve positions Sunday afternoon.
Busch, Bowyer, Austin Dillon and Aric Almirola have dropped out of championship eligibility as the series moves on to Playoff races in Kansas, Texas and Martinsville, Va. before the Nov. 8 championship finale in Phoenix.
The Playoffs standings were reset following the ROVAL checkered flag with regular season champion Kevin Harvick, a nine-race winner, topping the chart by 13 points over Denny Hamlin. Brad Keselowski is 32 points back in third place followed by Elliott, Logano, Truex, Bowman and Kurt Busch, who won his way into the next round with a victory at Las Vegas three weeks ago.
Kyle Busch’s exit marks the first time a reigning series champion did not advance to the Round of 8 and it will mark the first time in six years that Busch was not part of the Championship 4 that decides the sport’s ultimate trophy.
“Just been the year, nothing has played out or been on our side, it’s just been unfortunate circumstances and a lot of bad luck," said Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
“These guys on this M&Ms team never give up and they fight all year long, every race, every lap, every pit stop as we can see. But man, this is just one of those off-years, a terrible year for me. But as other sports greats would say, ‘there’s many other drivers that would love to have the year we’re having.'
Busch entered the race, ranked ninth and needing to make up 21 points to nudge his way into the next round of the Playoffs – but like all drivers faced a challenging afternoon that featured rain tires on the cars for the first time in modern day competition.
Busch’s day got especially dramatic, however, after the field changed back to slick tires once the threatening weather cleared shortly before the opening stage completed. His No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota suffered damage mid-race after a collision with Bowyer. However, Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens kept the two-time series champion calm and ready to rally and he responded – making his way back up through the field.
He was running fourth when the cars in front of him pit during a late race caution. Busch stayed on track and led three laps, but he was soon passed – his tires 20 laps older than the others who pit. Ultimately, he finished 30th needing to pit on the next to last lap for fuel.
Bowyer was one of only two drivers (also Bowman) to have top-five finishes in both previous races at the track. Bowyer's 10th-place finish ended his Playoff run but it was impressive considering he drove most of the race with no power steering. He was exhausted after the race and went to the infield care center to be checked out.
Almirola’s day featured similar struggles. He had a spin and was just never able to sustain a run front-pack. He finished 16th unable to make up ground on the 48-point deficit he started the race with.
“It was tough man," Almirola conceded. “I struggle here, in particular. I’m not the greatest road course racer and specifically here has been a challenge for me.
“Not the day we needed, for sure, to move on. But we’ve still got four races to go to perform at our highest level."
On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the 27-year old Bowman will be making his first appearance in the Playoff Round of 8. Earlier this week, Hendrick Motorsports announced Bowman will be driving Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet next year, moving from the No. 88 when the seven-time champion Johnson retires from fulltime competition.
Certainly Bowman’s work on track this weekend was well-timed success as he prepares for the enviable move next season. At times on Sunday, he was on the verge of elimination. But after climbing out of his car he fully conceded it had been a nerve-wracking drive despite his top 10 performance.
“It’s a lot of validation for us to make that round," Bowman said. When you are racing champions of the sport to advance you're never comfortable, especially en it is Kyle Busch."
As for Elliott, the victory and historical significance were a well-timed boost heading into the next Playoff round as he attempts to earn his first ever appearance in the Championship 4 making a run for his first NASCAR Cup Series title. He won the 2018 Playoff race at next week’s Kansas Speedway oval.
“Like I’ve always said, they’re way too hard to get [wins] to get picky about when and where and how," Elliott said. “So I’m just glad to be here and like I said, hopefully we can do something with this next round."