Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Clutch at Kansas? Chase Elliott carries lessons of 2020 title run into final playoffs stretch

Last season brought Chase Elliott his first NASCAR Cup Series championship, a crowning achievement in his racing career. But the 2020 campaign also offered a learning experience, providing some playoff seasoning that endures as a current-day benefit.

Pressed into a corner last year, Elliott and the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team belted out two clutch victories to close the season — one in the Round of 8 finale at Martinsville Speedway and the final one in the Phoenix Raceway title clincher. He’s not quite in the desperation of do-or-die mode yet this season, sitting eight points back of the Cup Series’ provisional elimination line heading into the Round of 8’s middle race at Kansas Speedway. Should such a scenario arise, Elliott’s at least been there before.

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“I mean, I think the biggest thing with that is it just really taught us a good lesson, right?” Elliott said. “… Obviously we’d love to get through this weekend, go ahead and get a win, but just taking that lesson and knowing, ‘hey, look it’s not over till it’s over and anything can happen.’ I don’t think there’s ever really a safe place with points unless you have a win, so I mean to me that’s the most, that’s the safest thing you can do is go compete for wins and I feel like we’re very capable of that — this year, just like we were last year. And I don’t see any reason why we can’t go and then have a shot to win each of these next two weeks.”

The quest for a repeat Cup Series title, which would mark the first in the eight years of the elimination-style playoff format, continues with Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the 1.5-mile Kansas City track. Just one other race is on the schedule — Oct. 31 at Martinsville — before the Championship 4 field is locked in for the Nov. 7 finale at Phoenix.

The two remaining races in the Round of 8 rank as friendly territory for Elliott, who finished seventh in the round opener at Texas Motor Speedway despite a recurring and confounding vibration in his No. 9 Chevy. He prevailed at Kansas in 2018, and his recent finishes there have since been dotted with top-five results. Elliott’s most recent Martinsville efforts have equaled finishes of fifth, first and second since the start of 2020.

Elliott starts fifth Sunday at Kansas, a track that’s presented him with mixed fortunes — especially early in his career. With playoff implications looming over the 400-miler, Elliott hopes the setup is more hit than miss.

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“I think really all you can do is just kind of look back at prior races for us and kind of understand where to try to draw some conclusions as to what has potentially made a difference in us having a good day versus a bad day,” Elliott says. “A lot of times there’s trends that show up, a path we might go down or something you’re chasing setup-related that sends you down a bad road so just trying to connect the dots and put the pieces of the puzzle together that correlate with good days there and try to put ourselves in the best position we can we go and have a good day.”

Having a good enough day to seal an automatic Championship 4 berth would require Elliott to snap a mild winless skid on oval tracks. Both of Elliott’s victories this year — Circuit of the Americas and Road America — have come on road courses.

It’s not for a lack of close brushes with Victory Lane; Elliott has finished second or third five times on ovals this year, but has yet to scratch the win column on that track type.

“Obviously, the results are what they are,” Elliott said. “So whatever the reason may be, it really doesn’t matter. You either do or you don’t, and we haven’t checked that box yet this year, but I don’t feel like it’s been a lack of performance, and on certain ovals, I feel like we’ve been really solid, so I feel like we’re just as capable right now as we were a year ago or a year before that.”