Chase Elliott seeks playoff-saving victory at Talladega
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) Chase Elliott has been inching toward his first career Sprint Cup victory all year, only to come up short time and time again.
He needs it to come Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, where anything but a win will likely eliminate the rookie phenom from NASCAR's playoffs.
There have been five times this year that Elliott has finished second or third. He's been inside the top five a total of nine times. He might have even won at Charlotte Motor Speedway two weeks ago until he wrecked. Then a tire problem at Kansas dropped him to last in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings and on the edge of elimination.
''We are obviously disappointed in the way the past two weeks have gone, having such strong cars,'' Elliott said Friday. ''But it puts us in a pretty simplistic situation for this weekend.''
The third and final race of this leg of the Chase will trim the title contenders from 12 to eight, and Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick already have spots locked down. There are no guarantees for the remaining six spots, as drivers have come to Talladega the last two years in good position only to be bounced out after a bad day at the superspeedway.
At the bottom of the standings along with Elliott are Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who raced for the title two years ago, and Brad Keselowski, who was in a must-win situation at Talladega two years ago and got the victory needed to advance to the third round.
Also in shaky position: Joey Logano, who won all three races in the second round last year, and Martin Truex Jr., winner of two races in the first round this season but suddenly is one sub-par day away from being bounced out of the Chase.
Truex made it to the championship round a year ago and didn't seem too stressed about his chances on Friday. He's sixth in the standings.
''You just go race, see what happens,'' Truex said. ''We're either going to make it or we're not. Worrying about it, thinking about scenarios, what do you have to do? All those things, it doesn't do anybody any good.''
Elliott is realistic about his chances. He finished third in two of the first three Chase races and soared into the second round behind improved performance from Hendrick Motorsports. Then he led 103 laps at Charlotte, only to be caught in an accident that wasn't his fault. He finished 33rd and then 31st at Kansas.
Typically very hard on himself after a poor finish, Elliott was encouraged by how well his Hendrick Motorsports team has been running. He said he believes he can race his way into the third round - and race for the championship.
''I 100 percent think if we can advance through this weekend, I without a doubt feel like we can be a contender,'' Elliott said. ''If you don't feel that way, you need to go home.''
Here's a look at how some other drivers are approaching Talladega:
He's a very good restrictor-plate racer, and finished second to de facto teammate Hamlin in the Daytona 500 as the Toyota camp ran a well-strategized race. He'll try to be smart again on Sunday rather than risk his title chances after moving to the top of the list of favorites at the start of the Chase. Truex has three wins in the last seven races and his Furniture Row Racing team has been one of the most consistent this year.
It is his intent to race toward the front all day and not drift back into the pack - a strategy some drivers use in an effort to stay far behind accidents. Truex believes that's a risky plan.
''The closer you are to the front, the better your odds are of getting through a wreck if it happens,'' he said. ''I've been crashed riding around in the back trying to stay out of trouble.''
Tied for the eighth and final transfer position, Logano finds himself in an odd position. He raced for the championship in 2014, then swept the second round last year.
But he's winless in the Chase this season and finds himself in danger of elimination along with Team Penske teammate Keselowski. Logano helped Keselowski to his must-win victory at Talladega two years ago, but with the season on the line, each needs the best finish they can get.
Logano sounded Friday like a driver looking out only for himself.
''I don't really think about how people are trying to knock me out, I think about how I'm going to knock other people out,'' he said. ''That's my attitude. If I'm on defense, we're not going to win. We better stay on offense.''
Like Truex, he wants to race up front all day. He finished fifth in the Daytona 500 when the Toyotas executed perfectly to get four of the top five positions, but isn't expecting that teamwork to work the same on Sunday.
Edwards is fourth in the standings, and Toyota drivers have five spots in the top 12. The manufacturer wants all five drivers to advance on Sunday, which will be Toyota's 1,000th race in the Cup Series.
Edwards isn't sure how it will work.
''I feel like Daytona was just a once in a everything aligned and that was unbelievable how well it worked,'' Edwards said. ''More often than not even if you have a plan, man, they fall apart so easily here. I think you have to really, really be conscious of the developing race and different circumstances.''
He's won the last two plate races this year, including at Talladega in May, and he has that 2014 experience on his resume. Still, Keselowski is in a deep hole. Working in his favor is that he's got the best winning percentage at restrictor-plate tracks of any NASCAR driver in history.
What works best for Keselowski is staying calm.
''I don't think it is a must-win situation,'' he said. ''I am not worried about it.''