Chase Elliott dejected after chance at first career win slips away

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DOVER, Del. — Chase Elliott simply sat still, his head in his hands — contemplative — before climbing out of his second-place finishing No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet on Dover International Speedway pit road late Sunday afternoon.

A few minutes later, he climbed out and leaned against his car facing away from the crowd of reporters, crew members and race officials on pit road as his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson approached. The reigning and seven-time Cup champion leaned back against the car as well and faced the 21-year old Elliott, who led a race-best 137 laps but not the final one.

Veteran Kyle Busch got around Elliott with one lap to go. And so, the highly-touted, highly-talented former XFINITY Series champion and son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott came .357-seconds shy of his first Cup victory.

It was his second runner-up finish in the last three races, third on the season and fifth of his two-year Cup career.

It stung. And his teammate Johnson felt for him.

“I knew I couldn’t say anything to make it better, but I felt like just standing there was maybe helpful since I know him so well,” Johnson shared later. “Maybe let him get a few cuss words out before he had to actually pull it together and do a proper interview.

“I don’t think you can say anything now to make it better. As we get close to next weekend, the sting will subside and you can look for the silver lining. But right now, it’s gonna hurt, it’s gonna sting. We all know that 24 car is going to win a lot of races soon.”

After dutifully doing a required television interview, Elliott came into Dover Media Center to take questions from reporters. Many were still outside doing interviews and Elliott had to wait a few moments before the session began. His body language was easily translated, the disappointment palpable.

His answers to reporters questions were short, but heartfelt.

“It was all just lap-traffic dependent,” he surmised of Busch’s pass. “I thought if I had a clean track, I could have run as fast as he did, but I didn’t, and I should have done something different. 

“So that’s just on me, and he did a better job than I did. At the end of the day that’s what it comes down to.”

Of his teammate Johnson’s consolation, he said, “Well, you know, I certainly appreciate his friendship and him willing to come over and talk to me, but yes, I think that kind of shows the kind of person he is, but it doesn’t fix my lack of performance this afternoon.”

Many would argue that Elliott absolutely performed Sunday afternoon in NASCAR’s first elimination race in the 10-race playoff stretch. His time out front was not only best on the afternoon, but best of his season and accounted for nearly a third of his 364 laps led in 2017.

The previous driver of Elliott’s No. 24, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, sat atop Elliott’s pit box for the race. Sitting alone on a row behind the team’s engineers and crew chief, Gordon was expressionless watching Elliott turn the race’s final laps. He sat still with his arms crossed in front, staring at the computer screen in front of him.

There was nothing really he could do but understand the frustration the young Elliott was enduring as he took the checkered flag. When Gordon climbed off the pit box to seek Elliott out, he had nothing but praise and optimism for his young friend.

“A lot of positives to take out of it, a tremendous effort by the whole team, so really disappointing right now,” Gordon said. “He drove an amazing race and his win is coming soon. Kyle (Busch)  did a good job there in lapped traffic. It’s difficult when you’re the leader and no one wants to cut you a break trying to stay on the lead lap. It was difficult to watch.

“I’ll certainly tell him what a good job he did and try to cheer him up. It’s hard on everybody. His team has been very, very close and I know how badly he wants to win. That’s just passion. That’s what I like.”

Gordon knows about passion. As he walked down pit road to speak with Elliott, he ran into Ryan Newman, who had been among the cars in front of Elliott as he raced those final frantic laps. He and Gordon exchanged words but later walked through the garage together smiling.

Busch, who has now won two races in a row, said he was slightly surprised he was able to get around Elliott. But the veteran conceded he simply seized opportunity.

“Could Chase have done anything differently?” Busch pondered after the race.

“The only thing Chase could have done differently was just move around and try to get out of the wake of the cars that were in front of him. I was actually surprised he didn’t. 

“He kept running the bottom behind those guys, and the bottom was what got him there for that point in the day. He was good down there all day long, but he was just getting slowed down too much by the air and everything in front of him.

“He could have just tried to blitz them on the top and get around them sooner, but other than that, I think he was just so focused on what he had all day long, making the bottom work, that he just stuck with it.”

And he added, “I would just say that’s experience.”

It’s certainly something Elliott is getting. The close calls — six third-place finishes in addition to the runner-ups — provide promise and uplift. No one doubts that Elliott will win. And when he does, he will have a wonderful — and very well-earned — sense of appreciation. 

“By midweek I’m sure they’ll work through this and find the silver lining and move on and go to Charlotte,” Johnson said. 

“They’re a fantastic race team. Chase is one heck of a driver, and I look forward to whenever that celebration does happen.”

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