Chase Elliott’s one-race suspension from the NASCAR Cup Series is in the rearview mirror, right where he’d like to keep it.
The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet said Tuesday he understands the sanctioning body’s decision to sit him out for last weekend’s event at World Wide Technology Raceway after officials ruled he intentionally crashed Denny Hamlin. The 2020 Cup champion looks forward to returning at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“I think certainly it was an unfortunate circumstance on many accounts,” Elliott told NASCAR.com via teleconference. “And I hate that we’re in the position that we’re in. Obviously, it’s been a pretty wild year, even prior to last week or two weeks ago. But yeah, look, I mean, I hate that I put our team and our partners and our fans and all the folks that make this go in a tough spot. Certainly glad Denny’s OK, and I understand NASCAR’s call and what they felt like they needed to do. So I respect all that.”
Elliott has missed seven races in 2023, six due to an injury suffered while snowboarding ahead of his most recent absence. He’s hopeful his Sonoma arrival triggers a more long-term stay on the schedule.
“For me personally, just looking forward to getting back to work and just trying to get in a groove because I don’t really feel like I’ve been in one throughout the year,” Elliott said. “It’s been kind of stop-and-go all season, unfortunately. But the way I see it is there’s 11 races left (in the regular season), and we pretty much need to go win one of those to get in the show. So that’s where my head’s at right now.”
Sonoma signals an excellent opportunity for Elliott to relocate the rhythm he’s sorely missed, as seven of Elliott’s 18 career wins have come on road courses. Yet Sonoma is the only road course at which Elliott has made at least three starts and not scored a victory — so far.
“I think we can go out there and win for sure,” said Elliott, a 2021 runner-up in Napa Valley. “We had a pretty solid run there last year. We weren’t the best I didn’t think, but we were fast enough to contend. And I think that being said, I also know the areas we could be better in leaving there last year, so I have a lot of confidence in the direction that I think we need to go in and what we need our car to do to be more successful there this year.”
As Elliott noted, just 11 races remain in the regular season. With seven races missed this year – six due to injury, one due to suspension – Elliott sits 28th in points, 98 points beneath the cutoff line for the NASCAR Playoffs. A win is almost necessary to lock into the postseason, but the No. 9 team has also balanced chasing stage points this season in Elliott’s return.
However, stages have a different look at road courses this season. The caution flag no longer flies at the end of each stage, but the top 10 drivers at the stage breaks will still receive a points payout. That may alter what strategies each team may utilize Sunday in Sonoma.
“For the most part there toward the end of last year and throughout the season, as this car kind of continued to evolve, you really had to had to short those stages to give yourself a shot to win,” Elliott said. “So I think just taking that out of the equation makes makes things a little more straightforward and doesn’t penalize the guys who are running well, right? You know, that’s the big thing with that is it ended up hurting the people who are running good and were deserving of stage points and forced them to not take any. So I think it’s a good move.”
Sonoma will mark Elliott’s first road race since returning from injury, a broken left leg suffered in a March snowboarding accident. The good news is Elliott has zero concerns about his leg’s comfort heading into the twists and hills of Sonoma, California.
“It’s been fine in the car really,” Elliott said. “I mean, Martinsville was a little challenging, but since then, I’ve felt pretty good with it in the car and getting stronger outside of the car too. You know, that particular injury is a long recovery. If you were playing a stick-and-ball sport, it would be quite some time before you could go play again.
“So I’m very fortunate that just the way our seats are and where my leg is positioned in the car and how secure it is in the car, those are all things that are working to my advantage and being able to get back to work as quick as I did.”
Elliott’s results have been decent this season. Aside from DNFs in the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, Elliott has landed safely between second and 12th in his other six starts. A seventh-place run at Kansas was “probably our best race” since returning from injury, Elliott said, but he noted he’s largely had eighth-to-10th-place cars.
As Elliott strives to make NASCAR’s postseason for the eighth consecutive season, he has the speed of Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman to lean on. Byron’s three victories this season are tied for the series best, while Larson has an additional two. Bowman has yet to find Victory Lane but boasts the second-best average finish (11.8) despite missing three races due to a back injury.
“Those guys are having having a lot of success, and when you have that, it definitely can help lead you in directions setup-wise or car-build wise or whatever it may be,” Elliott said. “So the program in general have been solid all year and there’s been a lot of pace. Obviously a lot of victories. So yeah, we’d like to tap into that and add to it.”
Elliott is entering a stretch of races that saw him rattle off five straight top-two finishes in 2022 — wins at Nashville, Atlanta and Pocono with runner-up results at Road America and New Hampshire. The Chicago Street Race replaces Road America this year, but his confidence is still high the No. 9 team can rekindle some of last year’s summer magic.
“I think we’re certainly capable of doing it; it’s just getting in a little bit of a rhythm,” Elliott said. “Running two races, skipping six, and then jumping in there for a few weeks and missing another one, it’s just kind of hard to find a rhythm. So yeah, hopefully no more skips over the next 11 weeks and we can just start chipping away at it. And obviously, that starts at Sonoma.”