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Analysis: Forget the Big 3, Chase Elliott is now a Championship 4 favorite

Chase Elliott earned more than just his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover International Speedway.

Elliott earned redemption from last year’s heartbreak at the 1-mile concrete oval, a race that saw a potential first win slip away when Kyle Busch passed him in the final laps. This time around, Elliott took advantage at arguably one of his best race tracks, earning the victory in the NASCAR Playoffs Round of 12 opener to advance.

But even bigger than that, Elliott proved he and the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team are now the biggest threat as the Championship 4 favorite for Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

EXCLUSIVE: Behind the scenes with Elliott’s Dover win

As ‘Big 3’ teams of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. faltered, Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson stepped up their game, gambling on pit strategy to get out front and win. It was a move that showcased the maturation of Elliott over the course of a year and the confidence Elliott and Gustafson have in each other.

“He (Gustafson) lets me do my thing, and I let him do his thing,” Elliott said of their relationship. “He doesn’t question me, I don’t question him, and to me it’s really simple and it works great. I’ve always appreciated that approach.”

This is a different Chase Elliott we are seeing this season compared to years past. Elliott doesn’t get down on himself as much when things go wrong and he’s exuding more confidence than what we’ve seen from him over the past three years.

Elliott credits those trying times for allowing him to grow as a person and a race car driver.

“It definitely makes you learn for sure, and it makes you appreciate a day like today more, I can assure you if last year wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t appreciate it as much as I do today,” Elliott said. “When you have those hard days, that certainly makes you learn and gives you no choice but to grow up a little bit.”

Hall of Fame team owner Rick Hendrick has even seen a change in his 22-year-old driver, especially after Elliott broke through and finally earned his first career victory at Watkins Glen.

MORE: Buy Elliott gear

“I think you could sense it up here, there was so much pressure on him to close the deal, and I would reassure him, man, that wasn’t your fault that the pit crew fumbled the ball,” Hendrick said. “Several races like that it wasn’t his fault. And so you keep trying to reassure him, but you could to a certain point.

“When he won that race at Watkins Glen, it was like the world was lifted off of his shoulders,” he added.

Now locked into the Round of 8, Elliott can focus his attention to a string of tracks that have produced strong results. Elliott holds an average finish of 7.4 at Texas with two top-five finishes. At Martinsville in 2017, he was poised to win when Denny Hamlin infamously bumped him, taking him out late in the race. He also has a 6.8 average finish at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, consisting of two top fives and four top-10 results.

Along with the statistics to back up the success we’ve seen from him, it’s Elliott’s personal growth that has transformed him into a championship-caliber driver.

The Watkins Glen triumph was the turning point in Elliott’s career. The Dover win was a statement saying forget the Big 3 — a championship bid will have to go through him.