CONCORD, N.C. – Looking back at the last 11 races, the slow start to the season for Chase Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports seems like a distant memory.
Since the Watkins Glen weekend at the beginning of August, Elliott has won three times – the first three wins of his NASCAR Cup Series career – and earned eight top-10s, six of which were top-five finishes.
The No. 9 team is on quite a run, advancing to the Round of 8 in the Cup Series playoffs. But it didn’t simply happen overnight.
“I know it seems like it’s kind of like a light switch,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “It’s never a light switch.”
At the start of the season, Gustafson said he didn’t feel the team was in a position to win a race. Elliott noted that the team was off on speed and battled with handling early in the campaign.
But the struggles only served to motivate the team to find its rhythm once again one step at a time.
“Sometimes going through this long enough that when you're down, not running well, if you can make enough gains to get back in contention, it can be an advantage,” Gustafson said. “I don't know if it's the fact that you appreciate it more or the fact that you struggled and know what it's like to kind of be on the bad end of it.”
The team rallied together, putting in long hours and constantly working to find any little bit of improvement.
Through it all, Elliott knew what the group was capable of.
“I felt like as a team we were capable of winning and doing it often,” the driver said. “I believed in my ability to do so. I believed in my team's ability, Alan's ability, our pit crew, road crew, the whole deal. That's never really been a question mark in my mind.”
That belief paid off, and the No. 9 team won two of the three Round of 12 races in the playoffs. Elliott is the second-youngest driver to get to three wins in Cup Series history behind only Kyle Busch.
The difference between the beginning of the season and now, the driver said, is that all the hard work has put the team in position to capitalize far more often. And the more they’re in position, the more opportunities they have to race their way to Victory Lane.
“I don't think there's one moment that I can say was the turnaround,” Gustafson said. “It's been coming and coming and coming, hard work. We've got an amazing group of people that work at Hendrick Motorsports. Certainly great resources, a great boss. If we get an opportunity and a little bit of time, we can make some things happen.”
The team has done just that.
Now, just three races in the Round of 8 stand between Elliott and a shot at a title in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And the entire team has seen what all that hard work can reap.
“As you get the results, with that type of commitment, it's like nitrous, adding fuel to the fire,” the crew chief said. “Reiterating that we can do it, reiterating that the hard work pays off. That kind of snowballs on itself.”