FORT WORTH, TEXAS - APRIL 13: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Hooters Chevrolet, drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 13, 2024 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) | Getty Images
FORT WORTH, TEXAS - APRIL 13: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Hooters Chevrolet, drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 13, 2024 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Journey back to the top has brought Elliott and the No. 9 team closer

It was undoubtedly one of the more popular victories of the season. Chase Elliott’s win Sunday in double-overtime at Texas Motor Speedway was not only the conclusion of an exciting race, but a bold reminder of what Elliott means to the sport and his success means to a wide-open championship battle.

It had been 42 races since the 28-year old perennial Most Popular Driver in the sport had celebrated in a Victory Lane – that last win coming in October 2022 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, where the series competes Sunday in the GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

An off-track injury and one-race suspension early last season put Elliott in a catch-up mode all year and while he certainly turned in competitive race showings, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion missed the Playoff for the first time in his celebrated eight-year career to that point.

That disappointment, however, only motivated his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team and Sunday’s trophy hoist was a sort of comeback culmination – a high-profile reminder that Elliott and this team are absolutely championship-capable. After his win Sunday, Elliott spoke at length about how the recent adversity has only made this team closer and more determined than ever.

“One, I’ve just been really proud of our group for sticking together, ‘cause I’m sure a lot of you guys have been around the sport long enough to understand and know that when you have a couple bad years, a period of time that things aren’t going well, it is so easy to jump ship and to start bailing out on one another,” Elliott said.

“I think that the win’s great, all that stuff is fantastic, but I’m truthfully more proud of the journey and the group of people that we have climbed back up together with. We’ve made each other better. They push me to be a better driver and a better person.

“I just feel like we’re all in a really good place and we have been,” he continued. “It’s nice to see all the hard work pay off. Those guys really deserve to win. They’ve been busting it for a while, have been doing a really good job.

“That’s what I’m most proud of, is the journey and all of us sticking together at the 9-team.”

That focus has been evident all season and in the last three weeks, in particular, the on-track results made Sunday’s outcome – Elliott’s 19th career win – seem almost inevitable. After mid-teen finishes in five of the opening six races, Elliott finished fifth-place (Richmond, Va.) and third-place (Martinsville, Va.) going into the Texas race leading laps in both, including a season-best 64 laps at the Martinsville half-miler.

“I feel like just generally speaking, from a competitive standpoint, we’ve been better to the competition throughout really most of the season, we just hadn’t always had great finishes and great results,” Elliott said.

“But relative to the guys that won a lot of these things over the last year or so, I felt like we’ve been close to them. I still think we have a lot of work to do, for sure. A lot of things went our way today, I’m not naïve to that, for sure as well.

“You have to be in the mix. You got to be up front to even have things go your way. We were close enough to do that. We still want to be better. I think we have room for improvement. Just proud of the way everything worked out. It’s a lot more fun when you’re fighting for wins and up front battling, whether it goes your way or doesn’t go your way. Just to have a shot is enjoyable.”

And judging by his track record, Elliott can feel especially optimistic about the upcoming weeks on the schedule. He is a two-time winner at Talladega Superspeedway (2019, 2022). He’s also a two-time winner at Dover (Del.) Motor Speedway (2018, 2022) and the 2019 winner at Kansas Speedway – the following two stops on the schedule.

It all speaks to another important competitive trait Elliott has shown in NASCAR’s big leagues – an uncommonly high level of diversity. That Texas victory gives him wins at 13 different tracks on a schedule that includes 26 venues. And the next slate of races where Elliott has earned trophies prove his keen adaptability. Talladega is a 2.66-mile superspeedway, Dover is a concrete mile and Kansas is a 1.5-miler like Texas.

He’s won on four different current road courses (Watkins Glen, N.Y., Charlotte, Austin and Elkhart Lake) and both Watkins Glen and Charlotte are now part of the Playoff 10-race run. He’s won at the Martinsville short track – also on the Playoff schedule – and the Phoenix one-miler, where the Championship 4 will settle the NASCAR Cup Series trophy on Nov. 10.

It all bodes well for Elliott, whose team is the third different Hendrick Motorsports car to win this year. His teammate Kyle Larson leads the season championship, and his teammate William Byron leads the series with three victories.

It is not lost on Elliott, that he earned his first career Xfinity Series win at Texas in 2014 and it propelled him to a series championship. It’s not unfathomable that Sunday’s victory on those 1.5-mile Texas high-banks puts Elliott back on the NASCAR Cup Series championship path too. It certainly did a lot for the confidence and spirit so essential to driver and team.

And it was a strong message to his competitors that Elliott is back up front and perhaps, more determined than ever.

“It’s been an extremely important thing to me and fortunately to our entire group, to try to climb this mountain again together and try to get back to where we need to be as a group,” said Elliott, noting that most of his team has been together his entire nine years in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“That’s pretty special,” he said of the closeness of his team. “I look at it as a credit to them because I think they’ve made me better and they’ve pushed me to be better, helped me identify some of my faults and some of my bad habits and been patient with me as I’ve addressed them, or at least started to.

“.. I think we still have work to do, no doubt. We had a lot of stuff go our way today. But we’ve been back in the mix more often. That is certainly progress. I think that is worth being proud of.”

— NASCAR Newswire —