What could have been another frustrating night for Chase Elliott turned into his best of the NASCAR playoffs thus far, as the Dawsonville native finished second in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
After a third successive poor qualifying run, Elliott started Saturday night’s Round of 16 cutoff race back in 23rd position while sitting seventh in the playoff standings after the Darlington and Kansas races.
But that starting position toward the back would prove to be a blessing in disguise — with several drivers contending for much of the race facing repeated mechanical issues.
Elliott would combine smart driving, patience and some good fortune to work his way to a runner-up finish.(Story continues below)
While the eventual winner was Chris Buescher — who became the third straight non-playoff contending driver to go to victory lane — Elliott believed his result could change the perception of his championship quest.
“Narratives can change really fast — I’ve learned over the years,” Elliott said. “We didn’t have a very good first two [playoff] races but it was nice to get in the battle there [tonight] with the 17 bunch. I was proud of the effort, felt like we had a shot and felt like we got our balance really close.”
Elliott and a few other drivers who finished up front managed to avoid the most prominent issue of the night, which involved repeated flat right front tires.
This problem, which mostly plagued Ford drivers, took out drivers one by one and caused the points spread around the playoff elimination line to tighten.
As for Elliott, these issues combined with some quick maneuvers moved him from a difficult passing position early in the race to fourth position by the end of Stage Two.
But plenty of patience was needed, as he spent around 150 of the first 500 laps outside the top 20.
The next hundred laps would prove to be crucial, with Elliott gradually moving up and then using a strong restart late in Stage Two to help secure track position.
While his position was temporarily affected after getting caught up in the largest crash of the night, he was quickly back into the top 10.
Late in the race, leader Brad Keselowski became another flat tire victim and gave Elliott a chance to move up. While that incident did not cause a caution flag, a later yellow flag with around 60 laps to go gave him one final push to contend for the lead.
The remainder of the race would see Elliott battle Buescher for lead, coming as close as three-tenths of a second behind before settling for a second-place finish.
The four eliminated drivers were Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kyle Busch.
Before the playoff standings officially reset for the Round of 12, Elliott’s finish put him in fourth place. Now, the regular-season champion will be back in front of the field with the points reset at 3000 heading into the next round.
Elliott spoke after the race about the many mechanical issues witnessed at Bristol, which also included another blown engine for Busch and power steering issues for pole winner Aric Almirola, Martin Truex Jr and Chase Briscoe.
“It was exactly what we thought it might be,” Elliott said. “Power steering problems have been a topic of conversation and there were some tire issues as well. We just tried to make it through and we ended up having a shot to win the race.”
Elliott and the No. 9 team will now head to Texas Motor Speedway to open the Round of 12 at the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 on Sunday, Sept. 25.