Battered and smoldering, the No. 24 car was stopped against Martinsville Speedway’s outside wall. Stewing inside the car was Chase Elliott, whose bid to score a first-ever Monster Energy Cup Series win had slipped away thanks to a forceful tap courtesy of Denny Hamlin’s front bumper with two laps remaining in the semifinal round race last Sunday.
That lost win represented more than just an inaugural triumph in NASCAR’s top division; it also brought a golden ticket where Elliott would’ve automatically advanced to the final of the Cup Series playoffs. Instead, Kyle Busch punched his ticket, while Elliott’s championship aspirations were battered much like his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Elliott is last among eight title-eligible drivers in the playoff standings, trailing Kevin Harvick by a whopping 26 points for the final provisional transfer position into the four-driver championship final at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The deficit is such that Elliott in all likelihood must win one of the two semifinal races remaining -- Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway or Nov. 12 at Phoenix Raceway -- to advance.
Because of what Hamlin cost him, one may presume Elliott has revenge on his mind heading into the AAA Texas 500 (2:15 p.m. ET, NBCSN). A subject certainly top of mind for TMS president Eddie Gossage, who wasted no time crafting a marketing campaign touting Elliott as “The People’s Champion” after the thunderous ovation he received from the fans at Martinsville upon confronting Hamlin following Sunday’s race.
After all, one of NASCAR’s ethos is “eye for an eye.” If one driver wrongs another, they can expect some kind of frontier justice in return.
But while Gossage would no doubt love to see fireworks between Elliott and Hamlin this weekend -- something akin to the pit road scuffle Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon and their respective teams had in 2014, the probability that Elliott will actually seek retribution is minute.
Smartly, Elliott’s focus is not on vengeance, but instead on winning. Although his chances of qualifying for the Final Four were diminished by what transpired at Martinsville, a path still exists for him to get to Homestead with a shot at the title.
Working in his favor is how the schedule sets up. Specifically, the high-speed, mile-and-a-half Texas oval where he’s never finished worse than ninth in three career starts. And on similarly sized speedways, he has been particularly strong recently, having finished fourth or better in the previous four races on such tracks -- including two seconds and a fourth in the playoffs.
However, another top 10 on Sunday does Elliott little good. What he requires is a win.
And although the 21-year-old has more than lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him being the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott and the successor to take over the famed No. 24 car when Jeff Gordon retired following the 2015 season, winning a Cup Series race is still something that has eluded the younger Elliott.
Six times he’s finished runner-up in 74 premier division starts, including three in seven playoff races this season. The reasons for the repeated near misses vary, though many can be traced to the second-year driver lacking experience.
But there can be no more learning curve. The situation calls for him to rise to the occasion if he is to avoid playoff elimination.
NASCAR’s current knockout playoff format was devised to test a driver’s mettle. At various junctures, they must be decisive and bold, cold and ruthless, or patient and calculated.
After Elliott had crashed last week, Kyle Busch had no qualms nudging aside Hamlin, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, on the subsequent overtime restart. Busch knew the stakes, what victory represented and wasn’t going to be denied.
Martin Truex Jr. also understood the circumstances, and instead of bumping his way by Busch when he had a chance on the white flag lap, he elected otherwise. Truex leads the points standings by such a sizable margin that the only thing preventing him from advancing to the championship round is if the ground swallowed him up. Thus, instigating a rivalry where it serves little purpose is best avoidable.
If Elliott were faced with such a choice in the next two weeks there is just one acceptable decision. A win is an absolute must. Any other result and Hamlin will not only have knocked Elliott out of the lead at Martinsville but effectively the playoffs as well.