MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Chase Elliott got back in the swing of things in a big way with a top-10 finish at Martinsville Speedway in Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race.
The event was the first for the 27-year-old Dawsonville, Georgia, native after missing six races due to a fractured tibia suffered in a snowboarding accident.
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Elliott qualified 24th for the 400-lap race. He finished stage one in 21st and was 24th at the end of stage two. During the opening two stages, the 2020 champion battled a stiff race car and handling issues. When the race's fifth and final caution came out on lap 344, crew chief Alan Gustafson brought his driver down for four tires and fuel and the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 came to life over the final 46 laps.
Elliott restarted 22nd on lap 355 and methodically drove up to 10th. The finish marked his second top 10 of the season and the best finish by a driver in his first race back from injury (since 2000), per Racing Insights. The race was won by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson.
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"It was pretty good, honestly," Elliott said of his leg after the race. "It was about what I expected, so that's a good thing. It was warm and I've been sitting on the couch for six weeks, so that probably hurt me more than anything. Our NAPA Chevy struggled every run but the last one. We got it going there at the end, was able to make some passes and do things I didn't think I was really going to be capable of doing, or at least of us fixing it to that degree here at the racetrack. I was pleasantly surprised by that and got us a top 10 in our first day back."
The five-time National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver Award winner was glad to be back in the saddle and to be so well received in his return.
"The people," Elliott said when asked about what he missed most about being away from the track. "From my peers to my teammates to that competitive nature of being here and wanting to be better. It's really nice to be back and I appreciate the warm welcome this weekend by everybody and that definitely did not go unnoticed."
Team president and general manager Jeff Andrews said that this grind-it-out day for Elliott was a good building block as he gets reacclimated to the car.
"If you saw him after the race, just the fight that's in Chase Elliott," Andrews said of Elliott's top-10 finish in his first race back from injury. "Obviously, that was a tough race on him. Tough race on any driver to come here after being out for multiple weeks.
"... He fought all day long and did a great job for us."
In early March, the 27-year-old underwent successful surgery at The Steadman Clinic, a U.S. Olympic National Medical Center in Vail, Colorado. Elliott rehabilitated in Colorado before returning to his home in Dawsonville, Georgia, in late March to continue physical therapy. He was medically cleared on Tuesday and tested on Tuesday and Wednesday in the Chevrolet Driver-in-the-Loop simulator in Concord, North Carolina, before making the decision to return at Martinsville.
NASCAR Xfinity Series full-time driver Josh Berry filled in for five races and earned a runner-up finish at Richmond Raceway. Road racing standout Jordan Taylor drove for the team at Circuit of The Americas. The six starts were the first that Elliott has missed in his full-time Cup Series racing career. From to start of the 2016 season to the 2023 race at Auto Club Speedway, Elliott had made 254 straight starts.
NASCAR has granted Elliott a waiver for playoff eligibility. Given his position in the point standings (31st), he will likely need to win one of the next 17 regular-season races to make the postseason. So far, a runner-up finish at Auto Club highlights his two starts on the season.
"We are in a position where we are going to have to win," Elliott said on Thursday. "That’s at least how I am looking at it and how I have been thinking about it since this happened. I figured you miss a few weeks and you are pretty much going to have to win."
Up next for Elliott is Talladega Superspeedway, where he is the most recent winner. In fact, the next two tracks - Talladega and Dover Motor Speedway - are multi-win venues for the driver of the No. 9 Chevy.