HAMPTON, Ga. – With wins in two of the last three NASCAR Cup Series races and a runner-up finish sandwiched in between those victories, there is no denying that Chase Elliott and the No. 9 NAPA AUTO PARTS team have found another level in the early stages of the season’s second half.
"He’s on a roll," team owner Rick Hendrick said during a press conference. "He was awfully close last week and then bringing this one home. We’re excited. They’ve gained a lot of momentum and they had some rough luck. And now, it looks like they’re really poised to move on, so just got to keep it going."
Elliott himself said he felt "like I gave one away last week" following his second-place finish to Tyler Reddick at Road America, in which he led a race-high 36 laps.
"To come back and to put on a performance like that, I'm really proud of that," the 2020 Cup Series champion said.
On a day when the Dawsonville, Georgia, native led a race-high 96 laps and nabbed his first win at his home track, Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon noticed that the 26-year-old had a certain vibe about him before the 260-lap event started.
"I just saw a look in his eye today all day," Gordon said. "When we saw him this morning, you could just hear it in his voice. Over the radio. He’s just very focused and determined and you get there from already having a couple of wins under your belt, the team is starting to gel, leading the points, coming to your home track.
"… Just a lot of motivation behind it and confidence coming into it. Now I think the confidence is only going to build for him and team. That’s a great combination to have at this point in the season."
The win and sweep of stages at Atlanta and last month’s win at Nashville Superspeedway have added 12 playoff points to Elliott’s total for the season. To date, he has earned 20 playoff points on the season with three wins and five stage wins – all three marks are tops in the series. He’s also held at least a share of the points lead since the spring Atlanta race and if he can maintain that, he would be in line for the 15 playoff points that the regular season champion receives.
PHOTOS: Chase Elliott takes part in celebration of Georgia champions
At the start of the season, consistency was the calling card for Elliott and the No. 9 team with seven top 10s through the first 10 races. The win at Dover Motor Speedway got him into victory lane in May and sparked a stretch of five top fives in his last nine races.
"The consistency has kind of been there from the beginning for them and now I think they’re on more of a roll as far figuring out how to get their car in position at the end of these races to get the wins," Gordon said. "You got to think of Alan (Gustafson) and the years that Chase (Elliott) and he have been together. The team in general – just not a lot of turnover within that team. They are a very solid group.
"They showed it two years ago when they won the championship, showed it last year going all the way to the Championship 4 and battling for the championship – in position really. That race could have gone any which way at Phoenix there in the closing laps. I think they are just following up the consistency that they just have as a group that works together and I think it’s showing up on the race track.”
The Atlanta victory marked the 16th Cup win for the driver-crew chief pairing of Elliott-Gustafson in seven seasons together. That total is tied for the second-most wins among any current Cup Series driver-crew chief combo in the garage.
"There's not enough superlatives to say how good he is," Gustafson said of his driver. "He's just so good. He's so smart. He's such a great race car driver. He was doing a lot of things that he's just one step ahead. The kid is super, super smart, really talented. Can handle a lot of situations."
Despite the surge that the No. 9 team has had in recent weeks, the crew chief doesn’t want to hear any chatter about being the team to beat for the title.
"I think it's way early," Gustafson said. "I think a lot of things can happen. … I've always said I feel like if we do our job and operate to our highest potential, I feel like we'll be able to give anybody a run for their money and compete on any given day. We just focus on that and focus on trying to improve. There's still things we can do better."