Chase Elliott is the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, and he doesn’t feel any pressure to defend his title.
The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet instead sees each season as a clean slate and each week as a new opportunity. Besides, even if he did feel pressure, his Hendrick Motorsports team learned how to turn negatives into positives during his championship run last year in the NASCAR Playoffs.
“At some point in the final 10 (races), you’re going to be faced with a tough situation, whether it’s in the first round or if you make it to Phoenix – that’s basically an elimination race, really all it is,” Elliott told NASCAR.com. “So, I think the more you can embrace those moments and enjoy them, the better you’re going to be. And I feel like our team stepped up and really did that last year. We learned a lot about ourselves and just how much we can enjoy and thrive in those situations.”
Those are the memories Elliott reminds his No. 9 crew of on a regular basis, especially now that the postseason battle is underway once again. Elliott is ranked sixth in the standings and 22 points above the elimination line as the Round of 12 continues Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Elliott did not win the opener last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – Denny Hamlin did – which means he is not locked into the Round of 8.
Elliott is, however, in a very similar spot to where he was last year – and look how that turned out. Entering the second Round of 12 race in 2020, Elliott was seventh and just 10 points safe. He finished fifth at Talladega and then went on to win Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval cutoff event to push through to the Round of 8. While there, he won the elimination race at Martinsville Speedway to make the Championship 4. Then, of course, he won the finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Really, up until last season’s Round of 12, Elliott only had two wins – a tally he matches now.
“That’s interesting, I didn’t know that,” Elliott said. “But, honestly, I feel like we’ve run better this year than we did last year up to this point. I don’t know why our results don’t necessarily show that, but I feel like we’ve been stronger at certain tracks that we’ve typically struggled at.”
A simple stat that proves Elliott is running better this year: his average finish. Elliott was averaging a 12.9 finish through 30 races last year. He is currently finishing with an 11.6 average, which ties for fourth best among series regulars.
More proof: Elliott also holds two more top fives and one more top 10 in 2021 compared to 2020.
“If you have a good weekend, you sort of look forward to going back next week,” Elliott said. “But you also know, at the same time, it can go south just as quick as it can go good for you. It’s a humbling, humbling thing.”
Elliott closed out last season with back-to-back victories. He didn’t win this year until the 14th race (Circuit of The Americas) on the schedule. It then took another six races for him to return to Victory Lane (Road America).
All that matters is Elliott made it to the playoffs, and regardless of what happens, the defending champ will embrace whatever tough situations arise rather than fear them.
“It’s a lesson that I think will be relevant as long as you’re racing,” Elliott said. “Yeah, I think it’s something you can carry for always.”