Chase Elliott climbed out of his No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet on pit road, downed a bottle of water, spoke with his crew and pretty much was left to wonder, “what if?’’
The talented 22-year old finished third in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. But unlike other victory near-misses – he’s had eight career runner-up finishes, including one just last week – Elliott conceded this time he was a victim of circumstance. He was the lone Chevy in a top-five scoreboard of Fords at a track when you need a dancing partner to partner with toward the finish line.
“It’s tough,’’ Elliott said. “You would think those guys want to win the race around me, but they just ride and ride and ride and they have to know in their minds they are waiting too long, even for themselves.
“I thought maybe one of them would get greedy and want to win, I certainly did. I knew if I went by myself it wasn’t going to work. For what it was, it worked out pretty good.’’
Team Penske’s Joey Logano scored his first victory in over a year and was followed across the line by Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driver Kurt Busch. Elliott was third with Busch’s teammate Kevin Harvick right behind and defending race winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. driving his Ford to fifth place.
While maneuvering the frantic final laps, Elliott hoped that someone up front would pull out of line with him and at least make a determined run at Logano. It never panned out, however.
“For us we just never got anything going, I feel like, until the end,’’ Elliott said of his day. “I was able to come in and put on tires towards the end of the race and have a little better rubber than those guys around me, which was nice and I made some good moves to get up inside the top-five.
“Last few laps was really trying to make a run and do something there at the end. Those guys were being awfully patient with one another. I was very surprised. I mean, it was more than obvious that they were not going to help me move forward.’’
Elliott did move forward in terms of his season, however. After a frustrating 33rd place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 and another DNF at Las Vegas two weeks later (34th place) the Hendrick Motorsports driver has been playing a determined game of catch-up in the standings.
He has four top-11 finishes in the last fives weeks – including, now, his back-to-back efforts of second (at Richmond) and third (at Talladega). He’s ranked 18th in the points standings – tying his highest mark of the season – and is only five points behind 16th-place Ryan Newman and eight points behind 15th-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
“For us trying to gain some points back, we needed a good finish [today],’’ Elliott said. “We are trying to dig out of a bit of a hole right now. So need runs like we’ve had the past two weeks. So we’ll move on.’’
The series races at the famous Dover International Speedway one-miler next week where Elliott has never finished worse than fifth place in four Cup starts, including a best of second place in the fall race last year.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!