As has been the case so far in these 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Sunday’s second-round opener at Dover’s “Monster Mile” proved it ain’t over till it’s over. And again, it was the veterans opening the door for younger drivers to come in to the playoff party.
Such was the case this weekend as Chase Elliott earned his second career Monster Energy Series victory and an automatic berth into the Round of 8. Dover International Speedway has historically been one of Elliott’s best tracks, but his opportunity to win was amplified by a couple late-race cautions — one involving his closest competition — and also by a great call not to pit during the ensuing yellow flags.
Bottom line, the 22-year-old held off the field for the final 11 laps — giving him two runner-up finishes and a victory in six Dover starts. As importantly, it gives the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet all kinds of momentum with six races left to decide a championship.
It was the biggest win of Elliott’s young career and a real crowd pleaser.
“Oh, huge,” Elliott said of the victory. “I mean, I think it’s nice to be able to know you’re going to move on, but you can’t get complacent in the fact that you are moving on, and you can’t let those points just sit out there and not try to go get them because those bonus points you get for winning or winning a stage or winning a race or whatever, that’s huge, and you need as many as you can get.
“One or two points could be the difference in you making the round of four or not. Just knowing that and not being complacent with the win and trying to go get another one or two before it starts I think is important.”
The series’ youth movement got a start a week earlier with Elliott’s good friend, 24-year-old Ryan Blaney hoisting his own winner’s trophy. He turned a strong run at Charlotte’s new road course into an automatic place in this round and, as with Elliott, he was able to take advantage of a late-race melee between front-running veterans. Two former champions — Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. — crashed out together while vying for the lead only a few turns from the checkered flag — and Blaney blasted through.
In a season dominated by the “Big 3” — former Cup champions Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Truex — the playoffs have presented a legitimate youth counter-movement. The “Big 3” combined to win 17 of the 26 regular-season races, but Busch is the only one to win in the four playoff races to date, scoring his seventh victory of 2018 at Richmond Raceway two weeks ago. Former series champion Brad Keselowski — Blaney’s Team Penske teammate — won the playoff opener at Las Vegas.
And since then, a pair of 20-somethings — Blaney and Elliott — have shown the veterans that they are primed to challenge for this championship, too.
To be fair, Harvick, a seven-time winner this season, dominated the day at Dover — leading a race-high 286 laps — before a pit-road issue put him a lap down late in the race. He turned in an inspired comeback and rallied to a sixth-place finish. Truex was also running up front when he was involved in a five-car accident with two laps remaining and finished 15th.
Harvick has led 340 laps in the playoffs and was runner-up to Busch at Richmond. His showing Sunday was good enough to give him the championship lead by five points over Busch. Truex has led 264 laps in the four playoff races, with a best showing of third, both at Vegas and Richmond. He is third in the standings, 32 points behind Harvick.
Blaney’s 11th-place finish at Dover was enough to keep him among the top eight entering Sunday’s always-exciting race at Talladega Superspeedway. Elliott’s win is a free pass to the next round and moves him to fifth place in the points standings — important with such an unpredictable venue as Talladega next.
Keselowski is the defending winner of the Talladega playoff race and Penske teammate Joey Logano won at the track earlier this year. Six of the last eight races — including the last four Talladega playoff races — have been won by the Team Penske teammates. Keselowski, who scored his first ever Monster Energy Series win at the track in 2009, won the 2014 and 2017 playoff races there and the spring 2016 race. Logano won the 2015 and 2016 playoff races as well as this year’s spring 500-miler.
For his part, Elliott won the pole position at Talladega in his first start at the track (2016) and finished fifth in that race. He was third behind Logano and Kurt Busch this year and has finished top 16 in his two previous playoff races there.
A win at the superspeedway, where Elliott is already a hugely popular driver among the Alabama fans, would be a huge accomplishment personally, and a great shot of adrenalin for the whole crowd.
“Anything is possible, man,” Elliott said of turning his win at Dover into a legitimate title shot going forward. “There’s no reason at all we can’t make a run at this deal. I thought we made a great run at it last year.
“Personally, I felt like we went way further than anybody expected us to, a couple laps away from going to Homestead-Miami. No reason why we can’t do that this year and give those guys a run.”