In the first 98 races of his career, Chase Elliott didn’t win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
Then he won at Watkins Glen International, and that victory last August provided a sweet storyline amid talk that centered around whether the proverbial floodgates would open as far as wins. But, frankly, Chevrolet drivers were struggling, and Elliott had led just 56 total laps prior to this initial victory.
When the playoffs started, Elliott, with his popularity soaring as the son of 16-time most popular driver Bill Elliott, showed he could rattle off wins. He advanced to the third round after winning two of three second-round races at Dover International Speedway and Kansas Speedway.
That surge at the end of 2018 was short-lived, however, and he started the 2019 season without leading a lap in any of the first five races. But Elliott very well could have jump-started his year with his win last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, the 10th race of the NASCAR season.
Look at what’s coming up the next two weeks: Dover this weekend, followed by Kansas.
Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson raise the Miles the Monster trophy after winning the 2018 playoff race at Dover. (Photo: Matthew OHaren, USA TODAY Sports)
“Those were certainly great wins last year,” Elliott said after his Talladega victory. “I felt like any time you can win and win often is a big deal. I felt like we won pretty often in that span of a couple months last year, which was great.
“I still don't think we're winning often enough. I feel like we need to be contending more. I see some of our competitors being in contention more than we have been throughout the season.”
Elliott’s early-season slump provided a best finish of ninth in the first five races of 2019. Then it appeared he found another gear. He led 49 laps and finished second at Martinsville. He followed that race by starting third and leading 35 laps at Texas and then starting on the pole and leading 38 laps at Bristol — but couldn’t parlay those fast cars into top-10 finishes.
He entered Talladega coming off an awful Richmond race where he scrambled for a 15th-place finish after starting 32nd.
"To have a win this early in the year I think is nice,” Elliott said. “And just because we won at Dover and Kansas last year doesn't mean we're going to go run good there, too.
“It's going to be hit‑or‑miss. We're going to go there and see what we have. We didn't run good at Richmond, which was unfortunate. We had a good day (at Talladega). We need to ride that as best we can.”
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While history doesn’t guarantee results, Elliott now has a win at a superspeedway (Talladega), a 1.5-mile track (Kansas), a 1-mile track (Dover) and a road course (Watkins Glen). That is a sign of his versatility and ability to adapt.
“To win the championship and to get to Homestead, you have to be able to win races,” Elliott crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “That was the hurdle we hadn't been able to get over. We won the Glen; it was fantastic. But you have to win in the playoffs. You have to win when everybody is on their best game.
“At both those (Dover and Kansas) tracks, we did a really good job, were able to win in crunchtime, had really fast cars.”
Gustafson loves Dover, and that win stood out to him because it is such a tough, fast track where the driver is on edge all day. The win at Kansas last year ranked as special because Elliott’s best finish at a 1.5-mile track previously had been 10th several months earlier at Atlanta.
Chase Elliott performs a burnout after winning the 2018 playoff race at Kansas Speedway. (Photo: Amy Kontras, USA TODAY Sports)
“Kansas, to be honest with you, as much as we struggled on the mile-and-a-half tracks last year, I didn't feel like there was any way we were going to win a mile-and-a-half track,” Gustafson said.
“We worked really hard at this mile-and-a-half program and had a test (last year) at Kansas that went fantastic. We were really solid all week, really were in position all day long.”
Gustafson admits he feels “about like I did last year” on his team’s performance on 1.5-mile tracks.
But as Elliott has shown, don’t count him out. In his last 25 races, he has four wins and eight top-5 finishes. The downside: He also has 11 finishes outside the top 10, including five outside the top 15.
“I’m just trying to ride the roller coaster,” Elliott said. “You try not to be too up on the ups, too down on the downs. There's so many things out of my control, out of my hands.
“You just have to kind of roll with it some days. That's not fun sometimes. Sometimes it is. … Everything kind of runs its course for a reason.”
Bob Pockrass is a FOX Sports reporter. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass.
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