AVONDALE, Ariz. – Chase Elliott needed a victory to reach NASCAR’s championship finale and had it in his sights, taking a late lead Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
A pass by Matt Kenseth with 10 laps ended his hopes.
No victory and no championship for the 21-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver, but he’s headed in the right direction.
“I felt like I gave my 110 percent today, although very disappointed, again, to be so dang close to winning and having a chance to race for a championship,” Elliott said. “Learning the hard way, I guess, in some ways, but it’s hopefully making me a better person and making us better down the road.”
Elliott has helped usher in a changing of the guard in NASCAR, joining fellow young drivers Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson in taking the sport into the future.
Those four claimed four of the 16 playoff positions this year, with Elliott and Blaney reaching the final eight.
Elliott has been groomed for his run to the top level of NASCAR, following the footsteps of his father, Bill, the 1988 Winston Cup Series champion.
Chase Elliott began racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series as a 15-year-old in 2011 and won the 2015 Xfinity Series title at 18.
That earned him a spot on Hendrick Motorsports’ Cup Series team.
Elliott ran five races for Hendrick in 2015 and was named the Cup Series rookie of the year in 2016 after finishing 10th in the overall standings. He took over Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 car this season and put himself in position to qualify for the final four at Homestead next weekend with steady driving, racking up 20 top-10 finishes.
The one hole in his resume: A victory.
Elliott has finished second seven times the past two seasons, including five times this season, and ran out of gas while leading in the closing laps of this year’s Daytona 500.
“I hope I grow as a person every week and grow as a racer every week,” Elliott said. “That is something I think everybody tries to do and I try to do better and do my job and came up short again and that is frustrating and I get it. We just have to keep our morale high and go to Homestead next week and get ready to close out the season strong and bring everything we’ve got come next season.”
Elliott nearly had a victory that would have sent him to the final four at Martinsville two weeks ago, but was bumped out of the lead by Denny Hamlin. At Phoenix, he pinched Hamlin up into the wall and grabbed the lead, but couldn’t hold off Kenseth, who celebrated an emotional win in what could be his penultimate Cup Series race.
The bump into the wall caused a tire rub on Hamlin’s car and he later crashed, ending his championship finale hopes. Brad Keselowski earned the final spot with Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick by finishing 16th.
“A wise man once told me that he’ll race guys how they race him with a smile on his face, so that’s what I did today,” Elliott said. “I raced him how he raced me and that’s the way I saw it.”
Hamlin didn’t appreciate the retaliation, particularly the timing of it. He was in position to race for the final playoff spot when Elliott ran him up the track.
“It just proves to the people who thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing under the same circumstances,” Hamlin said. “I got into him and he chose to retaliate.”
Now both drivers are out of the championship hunt, though one feels better about how it ended.