LEBANON, Tenn. (AP) – Chase Elliott prefers to view a very challenging season as opportunity, not pressure.
The 2022 Cup Series champ who won a career-high five races last year taking the regular season title sits 27th in the points standings as NASCAR returns from the lone break in its 38-race season. Elliott has started only nine of 16 races. A leg broken while snowboarding cost him six starts, a suspension another.
The Cup Series’ most popular driver five years running sits 278 points behind leader Martin Truex Jr. with time running out to qualify for the playoffs.
“We’re in a tough spot, but I think it’s a good opportunity to go and have some fun and embrace the challenge,” Elliott said. “And that’s really kind of where my head’s at.”
All of NASCAR – Elliott especially – should be rested up for the stretch run starting Sunday night with the Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway.
The 27-year-old Elliott should be a bit more rested than others after serving that suspension at St. Louis for wrecking Denny Hamlin at Charlotte. He finished fifth at Sonoma going into the break.
Elliott also survived a nearly seven-hour marathon to win at this track a year ago. He and the rest of his Hendricks Motorsports’ teammates on the No. 9 Chevrolet started poorly and used the weather delay to adjust well enough to win.
“A lot’s changed in the course of the year,” Elliott said.
One win would fix a lot, and four of the 10 tracks left in the regular season are places Elliott has won five of his 18 career Cup wins. Competition is tight with only 32 points separating the top seven drivers.
Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. is curious to see how Elliott responds to the challenge down the stretch. Elliott’s absence earlier this year affected TV viewership, and not making the playoffs could only ramp up the pressure. Earnhardt said he’s confident in Elliott’s approach and personality to help now.
“When he goes home and he disconnects from the sport, I think he does a really good job of putting himself in places where he can let go and where he can get away from that overbearing pressure,” Earnhardt said.
PICKING UP FROM SONOMA
His second victory this year and taking the points lead made the break very enjoyable for Truex.
“I’m still winning,” Truex said with a smile.
Truex has five top fives and eight top 10s this year, yet he can’t relax with only a 13-point lead over William Byron. Truex remembers only too well going winless last year, not easy for the 2017 Cup champ.
Being in the second season with the Next Gen car has made it easier for Joe Gibbs Racing with Truex’s No. 19 Toyota. Truex said it feels like they have a bit more margin for error combined with producing a faster car more consistently. That helps both the team’s confidence and decision-making.
“Fast race cars make everything a lot easier, and it’s always been that way and it’ll always be that way,” said Truex.
CHECK THE CHANNEL
NBC Sports begins its portion of the NASCAR television package at Nashville through the end of the season. Sunday night’s race is among 10 Cup Series races on NBC itself, including the final six races of the playoffs capped by the championship at Phoenix on Nov. 5.
Earnhardt called Nashville an incredible market to kick off NBC’s coverage this season with the track producing some great racing. The Next Gen car fits this 1.33-mile track that is the longest concrete-only oval on the NASCAR series.
“This car races really well at these type of racetracks, the bigger mile, mile-and-a-half racetracks. This race will be an entertaining race for sure. We have just a lot going on,” Earnhardt said of all the story lines.
Defending Cup champ Joey Logano enjoys racing at the Nashville Superspeedway much more than during the track’s early years. He won a race here in 2009 and recalled how drivers were limited to running one, sometimes two lanes making the racing boring.
“I guess that’s why people stopped coming, and it went out of business,” Logano said. “But now, like the track’s three to four lanes wide, and the racing has gotten a lot better.”
The last race was held here in 2011. Drivers kept coming, making the track a popular testing spot. Dover Motorsports moved one of its Cup races to Nashville and brought NASCAR back in 2021 with the first Cup race in the area in 37 years. Speedway Motorsports bought Dover in November 2021.
ODDS AND ENDS
Truex is tied with Kyle Larson, who won the inaugural Cup race at this track in 2021, as the favorite to string together back-to-back wins at 5/1, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. William Byron and Denny Hamlin are right behind them at 7/1.
Larson is the 5/1 favorite to win the Cup Series title for a third straight overall even with the break.
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