Finally, it all came together for NASCAR’s new favorite son — Chase Elliott — in 2018. After enduring frustration after frustration for 94 consecutive races that featured numerous near misses (eight runner-up finises to be exact), the 23-year-old finally gave the Dawsonville Pool Room a reason to fire up their famous siren.
Even though the season turned into Elliott’s best in his young Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, things got off to a bit of an inauspicious start.
After three races, Elliott had already piled up two DNFs in crashes at Daytona and Las Vegas.
Elliott would show signs of life with a third place finish at Phoenix and a ninth-place finish at Martinsville, but after nearly a quarter of the season he was still mired outside the top-20 in the championship standings.
Then, Elliott began to hit his stride.
Over the next eight races, Elliott would score two top-five finishes, including a runner-up effort at Talladega, and he wouldn’t finish worse than 12th during that span.
The needle was trending in the right direction for Elliott and his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team. As he crossed the mid-way point of the season, victory was looking more and more like a certainty.
Elliott finished fifth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He was seventh in the next race at Pocono.
Then, Elliott captured his first win in the Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International and he did so in emphatic fashion as he out-dueled Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch — two of the best there are in the NASCAR garage at road course races.
According to Elliott, it was all of the close calls over the last few years that led to him knowing what to do when in a position to win at Watkins Glen.
“I learned a lot about myself the past couple years,” Elliott said after his first win. “I’ve learned a lot racing in general. I felt like the end of last year I was probably at the top of my game that I’ve ever been racing as a race car driver in general and felt coming into this year with a lot of confidence and knowing that I felt like we could compete with these guys and haven’t had the year that we were hoping for, but the past few weeks have been encouraging and feel like we’ve been running more like we did last fall, which was really nice, and no reason why we can’t do that more often.”
Once he finally found the key to victory lane, there was no stopping Elliott.
He would go on to capture career win No. 2 just eight races later in the Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Elliott was a contender for the win until he was busted for speeding on pit road. This mired him deep in the pack, but on a late-race caution Elliott stayed out when the rest of the field pitted for tires. This gave Elliott the lead and he was able to hang on for a stirring win.
“I just feel like I’ve messed [staying out on old tires] so many times. I was like hey, here’s your opportunity to make it right and to do it right,” said Elliott. “I don’t know. Today just felt different. Like in those positions, I just felt more confident and just excited about the opportunity instead of unsure of what was going to happen. It’s just amazing and I just love the opportunity that Mr. Hendrick has given me. I’m glad he was able to be here today for our second win of the year.”
Finally, the young Georgia-native capped off a season hat trick with another victory in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas in October.
The No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team was the lone bright spot for the entire Chevrolet camp in 2018. Aside from Elliott, only Austin Dillon was able to muster a win for the bow tie brigade this past season, and Dillon’s came in a wreck-marred Daytona 500.
In addition to his three victories, Elliott also scored 11 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s throughout a strong campaign en route to a sixth-place finish in the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series point standings.
What can we expect from the 2018 NMPA Most Popular Driver? Another step toward being a future champion in the series.
Despite a bunch of off season changes between the No. 24 and 48 teams at HMS, Elliott’s No. 9 team will stay virtually intact. Alan Gustafson — one of the most competent crew chiefs in the garage area — will continue to call the shots. Primary sponsors NAPA Auto Parts, Mountain Dew, Kelley Blue Book and Hooters are all confirmed to be returning for 2019.
With an extra offseason of research and development on the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 body, which was introduced for 2018, the HMS squad and the entire Chevrolet group should start finding more speed this upcoming season.
This all bodes well for Elliott, who had a break out year and was on the verge of sneaking into the Championship 4 in 2018. Expect Elliott to be a serious threat for the title this year.
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Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed the sport as a fan since 1993.