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Difference-maker: Inside Chase Elliott’s four-race road-course streak

Crew chief Alan Gustafson insists there’s no secret sauce.

No, there’s no clandestine rocket booster or tire stick-um in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that have helped Chase Elliott deftly handle the NASCAR Cup Series’ left-right-left circuits to the tune of four consecutive road-course wins.

“Yeah, I think it’s him. I think we have Chase Elliott. That’s the difference,” said Gustafson, shortly after the team’s most recent triumph, Sunday’s rally and romp in the Bank of America Roval 400. “He’s really, really good. I don’t know what else to say. I think his performances speak for themselves.”

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Elliott has become the even-money favorite for NASCAR’s occasional diversions from its mostly oval-track schedule, and Sunday’s repeat taming of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval — 2.28 miles of 17-turn mayhem, in partial rain, no less — became his latest act. He’s only the second Cup Series driver in NASCAR history to rack up four straight road-course victories; the other is Hendrick Motorsports legend Jeff Gordon, who once won six straight on the series’ most twisty layouts.

Elliott’s streak stretches back to August 2019 and includes a Watkins Glen International triumph, two Roval wins and a one-off victory at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course. Asked what to make of his not-so-sudden rise to road-racing mastery, the 24-year-old Elliott shrugs with an aw-shucks Georgia twang.

“No, we definitely don’t show up just expecting to be good. We show up trying to be better than we were last time,” said Elliott, who secured his third victory of the season, pushing him into the next round of the NASCAR Playoffs. “I thought we did that today. I thought our car was better than it was here last year. I thought I was better than I was last year. Didn’t pile-drive the barriers this time.”

So while Elliott replicated his 2019 Roval victory, he skipped a re-enactment of his famed unforced error, where he nosed the No. 9 Chevy into the Turn 1 retaining tires, yet somehow roared back to victory. This year, instead of having to rally from an oft-memed moment, Elliott had to come back after an unscheduled pit stop just before the start of Stage 3 to tighten a loose wheel.

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In just 30 laps after the miscue, Elliott & Co. had used some pit strategy and steady-smooth driving to eventually regain the lead, a methodical march to the front that wasn’t lost on his rivals.

“I hate to say we’ll take second and be happy with second, but no one was going to beat that 9 car today, I can tell you that much,” said runner-up Joey Logano, whose best efforts still had his No. 22 Ford sitting 3.895 seconds behind Elliott at the checkered flag. “Geez, he’s smoking around here. Their road-course stuff with Chase and Alan and those guys are light‑years ahead of us. Not even close. They’re definitely booking. We got to figure out what that is. Probably their teammates are wondering the same thing.”

As for Elliott’s teammates, the other three Hendrick Motorsports drivers all finished in the first baker’s dozen, led by William Byron, who tied Elliott with 27 laps led and took sixth place, just ahead of Alex Bowman in eighth and Jimmie Johnson in 13th. Respectable finishes, but Elliott left little for anyone else.

Elliott’s father, Bill, made his mark on NASCAR’s biggest superspeedways, using the ingenuity from his family’s Dawsonville, Georgia, speed shop to make his No. 9 entries sing during the final years of the unrestricted era. But the NASCAR Hall of Famer was also an underrated road racer, a specialized talent that apparently hasn’t skipped a generation. The younger Elliott polished his own road-racing skills with sessions at the Bondurant High Performance Driving School, and counting road-course specialists Ron Fellows and Boris Said among his confidantes hasn’t hurt.

Elliott said adding more road courses to the postseason mix wasn’t something he’d necessarily advocate, but the recent release of the 2021 Cup Series schedule offers some enticing opportunities for NASCAR’s new road-course king. Next year’s slate includes six road-course tests, including three new tracks where Elliott and his team might flex their versatility.

But that’s next year. For now, Elliott has three Round of 8 races (Kansas Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway) with nary a road course in the bunch to make his next step into his first Championship 4 berth.

“Was able to finish it off the right way, which is always encouraging,” Elliott said of his Sunday surge. “Looking forward to this next round, trying to make some noise.”