Clutch Chase: Elliott’s time has officially come with Championship 4 bid

Shortly after crossing the finish line for his first win at Martinsville Speedway to make the Championship 4, Chase Elliott admitted that a performance under pressure is what the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team was lacking.

It’s safe to say they have found that missing piece and it doesn’t look like they’ll be losing it any time soon.

“Oh, my gosh, this is the biggest win ever for us,” Elliott said. “I’m just so proud to be able to be backed into a corner like that and have to win tonight. I feel like that’s what we’ve been missing these past four or five years and perform when we don’t have a choice. And, to do that tonight; we couldn’t ask for a better night. This is unreal.”

ADVANCING: Championship 4 set for Phoenix

Now, the NASCAR Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver will compete for a championship in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway next Sunday for the first time in his fifth full-time season. Chevrolet hasn’t appeared in the final playoff round since 2016 when Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson earned his record-tying seventh title.

On a chilly fall Sunday evening in Martinsville, Virginia, it appeared a changing-of-the-guard moment had occurred at Hendrick Motorsports with Elliott’s fourth win of the 2020 season and the 10th of his young career.

“These are all moments that I’ve never experienced and moments we haven’t done yet as a team,” Elliott said. “I think it’s huge for me personally. I think it’s huge for our team as a whole; each and every person that puts in time and effort to try to make our program work. I think that when you’re able to be in a position that we were in like we were tonight to try to perform and go and do that, I think everybody gains a lot of confidence from it.

“We proved to ourselves that we could do it,” he added. “I think we also believed that we could do it, but to go out there and actually achieve it is something that we haven’t experienced yet as a group. … We want to assert ourselves among those people who can make it (to the Championship 4) consistently. I feel like we’re very capable of doing that.”

Although Elliott led a dominant and career-high 236 of the 500 laps in the Xfinity 500 Round of 8 elimination race, it was far from easy for the No. 9 team. On Lap 351, Elliott was originally penalized when it appeared the jackman went over the wall too soon during a round of pit stops under caution. The penalty was rescinded, however, after further review by NASCAR officials, discovering the crew member re-established his place on the pit wall after realizing his mistake, which is permitted in the NASCAR Rule Book.

The clutch move saved Elliott from dropping back to the rear of the field in the final stage. It also proved that not only is Elliott capable of rising to the occasion in a pressure-packed situation, but the team can do the same.

“We’ve been trying to take this step now for the last two or three years and I feel like we’ve been really ready to do it and able to do it,” said crew chief Alan Gustafson. “We have not done it when it mattered. Today, we were able to overcome some pretty tough circumstances at Texas and come here really in a must-win situation and being able to do it was great.”

With Elliott earning his first grandfather clock with his Martinsville win, has the time come for the next generation of drivers to start winning championships?

We’ll have to wait a week to find out, but as Elliott prepares to cap off his most successful season to date with a potential title in Phoenix, the veteran-like mindset he has developed will not waver as he enters the most pivotal moment of his career.

“I think if we sit back, start worrying about who is favorite, who is not, who is the underdog, getting everybody running their mouths deal, I’m just not about that,” Elliott said. “I think it’s unproductive. We’re going to worry about ourselves, try to give it our best shot to win.”