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April 15, 2024

Analysis: Chase Elliott’s victory highlights journey back to top of mountain

When Chase Elliott broke his leg in a snowboarding accident in March 2023, he knew the journey back to Victory Lane would be arduous. But no one knew exactly how long that gap between visits would be.

On Sunday, 409 days after suffering his injury, Elliott finally reached the top of the mountain once more, winning at Texas Motor Speedway to snap a 42-race winless streak that dates back to October 2022 at Talladega Superspeedway.

MORE: Race results | Buy Chase Elliott winner gear

The results between his mid-spring absence and Sunday’s return to prominence were far from dismal — Elliott had scored top 10s in three of the past four races entering Texas, including consecutive top fives at Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway in the two weeks prior.

But they didn’t match the previous standard of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team that claimed the Cup Series championship in 2020, won multiple races per year from 2018 through 2022 and matched a career-best five wins in 2022, the debut year of the Next Gen car. In fact, Elliott’s victory at Texas marked his first top-five finish on an intermediate oval in the Next Gen car.

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But the fans who have voted him winner of the Most Popular Driver Award for six consecutive seasons can worry no longer — Elliott is victorious again and soaking in every second.

“I’ve just been really proud of our group for sticking together,” Elliott said, “because I’m sure a lot of you guys have been around the sport long enough to understand and know that when you have a couple bad years, a period of time that things aren’t going well, it is so easy to jump ship and to start bailing out on one another.

“I think that the win’s great, all that stuff is fantastic, but I’m truthfully most proud of the journey and the group of people that we have climbed back up together with. We’ve made each other better. They push me to be a better driver and a better person.”

That starts, Elliott added, with crew chief Alan Gustafson. When the lows added up for Elliott, a driver who has admitted some growing pains in adapting to the required driving style of the Next Gen car, Gustafson was there to keep Elliott focused on the tasks at hand and avoid the pitfalls of self-doubt.

“I think the longer it goes, the more ways you find to either not run good or lose races, it can make it tougher,” Elliott said. “To me, honestly, this journey and everything about today is really a credit to the guys that sit in our meetings on Monday mornings in the 9 room. That starts with Alan.”

Chase Elliott is congratulated in Texas Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series race.
Patrick Vallely | For

It is resilience and self-admitted stubbornness that drives the No. 9 team toward its goals. That perseverance carried Elliott to his first Texas win.

WATCH: Gustafson discusses No. 9 team’s grit | No. 9 jackman on memorable victory

“You just have to trust in the process, trust each other,” Gustafson said. “Focus on improving, not getting caught up on what you don’t have, focus on what you do have. We have everything we need to win with Mr. Hendrick, how he supports us, how everybody at Hendrick Motorsports supports us. We have a great race team. This is a really great race team, a great pit crew.

“We just knew you had to stay committed to that and each other. That’s all I do. It’s not anything special besides just being super, super stubborn and resilient.”

Success has been frequent lately at Hendrick Motorsports, where William Byron has won three of the first nine races of 2024, and Kyle Larson has won three consecutive pole positions, coupled with a race win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Elliott and the No. 9 team were once the program’s dominant fleet. Sunday offered a glimpse at what Elliott’s long-term return to the sport’s uppermost echelon could look like.

“William Byron, as much as I love him and Rudy (Fugle, crew chief), they’re not always going to be at the top, right?” Gustafson said. “It’s just not going to happen. Everybody goes through ebbs and flows. Whoever you want to call successful: (Martin) Truex (Jr.), Denny (Hamlin), Kyle, Kyle Busch, everybody has those ups and downs. I think just having the strength to battle through it and persevere is key, and he’s done that.”

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Elliott has long been a believer that to reach Victory Lane, a driver must first put himself at the front of the field often. He’s done exactly that lately, entering Sunday’s race with the series’ fourth-best average running position at 11.096, per NASCAR’s loop data.

“You have to be in the mix. You got to be up front to even have things go your way,” Elliott said. “We were close enough to do that. We still want to be better. I think we have room for improvement. Just proud of the way everything worked out. It’s a lot more fun when you’re fighting for wins and up front battling, whether it goes your way or doesn’t go your way. Just to have a shot is enjoyable.”

The journey back to Victory Lane was far from easy for Elliott, something Gustafson has seen firsthand. But he also understands the work his driver has put into getting back to the peak of the mountain.

“He’s a human being just like everybody else,” Gustafson said. “He has his life going on. He has trials and tribulations that he has to work through. Yeah, being out with an injury, then having to go through all that. Yeah, maybe not performing to some people’s expectations.

“It’s not something that I believe. I feel like he’s performed really well. I think it’s just, yeah, sometimes you can get in a little bit of a hole. You just have to fight, right? That’s the biggest thing I’m most proud of him and the team for, is just continuing to fight through it, make it happen. It’s super cliché and cheesy, but you just never give up. You learn that if you don’t give up, eventually, things are going to turn around. I think that’s probably going to be the biggest lesson he takes out of that.”

Isn’t it convenient, then, that the series shifts to Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) — site of Elliott’s last win before Texas?