Chase Elliott ready to race for second NASCAR Cup title in three years
PHOENIX – Chase Elliott hasn't seemed all that pleased after most of the 2022 NASCR Cup Series playoff races.
Part of that is he likes to win, and he has done so only once in the Cup playoffs. Another part is that he likes to have speed, and he hasn't had it week-in, week-out.
He blames himself for much of it, saying a variation of "I need to do a better job."
But don't take any of that postrace Eeyore persona and think he lacks confidence entering the championship race Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. The 2020 Cup champion will vie for the title for the third consecutive year, with the top-finishing driver Sunday among him, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell capturing the 2022 crown.
"I feel fine," Elliott said Thursday afternoon. "I feel we have as good an opportunity as anybody. Our playoffs has (been) ... probably more down than it has been up for how we ran leading into it.
"But when I sit back and I look at this weekend and the way this format is and the way the final four works [with one race], if you're in, you have a shot."
Elliott has a chance, but he has just two top-10 finishes, including a 10th at Martinsville last week, in the playoffs. He has four finishes of 20th or worse.
Then again, he also has won five Cup races this year, two more than any other competitor in the series.
"He's won five races, and he's had some situations where the car wasn't as good as we thought it would be, and he was frustrated," team owner Rick Hendrick said.
"But it's one of those deals that you just put all that behind you. You run good at Phoenix, you've won that race [in 2020], you've won the championship there. So just go back, the car is going to be good and do your job. He's excited. He's ready. We'll just put any of the bad luck or inconsistencies we've had leading up to this race behind us."
Elliott, the sport's most popular driver, said inconsistency is part of racing.
"it's certainly not always going to be rainbows and butterflies," Elliott said about his playoffs. "It's just not. As much as I would love for it to be, it's not.
"And I recognize that, and as a team, we understand that, too. ... Being a part of the final four is a great accomplishment whether you've had a good nine weeks or a mediocre nine weeks or poor nine weeks."
One thing in Elliott's favor: he never truly gets in a slump.
"The trend of our year, honestly, is just a lot of inconsistency — having really good weeks, and some really, really poor weeks as well," Elliott said. "They've even come in a very similar stretch of time.
"So it's just part of the part of the deal sometimes."
Elliott looks at Phoenix as a place where he ran top-10 for much of the day until a single-car spin with about 10 laps remaining. He felt they were solid but not spectacular.
A solid car can win a championship. A spectacular car gives a driver more options on how to get there.
"Somebody could dominate a race and not end up winning the race or the championship," Elliott said. "It all has to go your way. Yes, you want to have pace. Having pace in your car and being fast gives you a lot of opportunities in different ways.
"But there are other ways to win and there are other ways to lose, too. It all has to go your way. Good timing and good people go a long way — and not just this sport but in about anything I've ever seen."
Hendrick said he will try to make sure that Elliott doesn't blame himself for much of the inconsistency. The Next Gen car has led to more parity this year, as well as teams trying different concepts with varied success.
The 2022 season hasn't seen any dominant teams. Some would have argued prior to the playoffs that Elliott had been more dominant than anyone else.
And then came the frustration of the last couple months.
"Chase, if you've watched him, he's always put the burden on himself," said Hendrick, who signed Elliott in 2011 when Elliott was 15 years old. "When Chase Elliott can't drive a car because we missed the setup, that's not his fault. But he will never, ever, ever point a finger at the team. He always takes it on himself.
"I've talked to him a lot about it. I think he just feels like he can carry it; if he doesn't, he's failed. I admire that about him to a certain point. I see so many drivers get out and blame the car for everything, and he will never do that."
Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson have a strong relationship, so there is a trust factor there that they can come to Phoenix and flourish.
"His confidence is high, and I think he's so competitive, he just wants to be there for the team and the organization and for himself," Hendrick said. "He knows how good he is.
"And I've talked to him several times this week. He's ready for this race. He wants to win another championship, and Alan is burning up to win another one, too. I think once he gets out of the car, you're seeing just a little bit of frustration on where they've finished rather than — he's just disappointed. But he does carry a lot of the load that he doesn't need to carry."
Elliott enters the weekend with optimism because the opportunity is there.
"We haven't wrote the ending yet, right?" Elliott said. "The narrative is there for you to make it whatever you want to and however you execute your day."
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.