CONCORD, N.C. – Chase Elliott continues to keep up the positive momentum with a third-place finish in Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway.
It's been an up-and-down year for the driver of the No. 9. He missed six races due to a fractured tibia. Since his return from injury at Martinsville Speedway in April, the No. 9 team has been on a mission. Sunday’s event at Darlington marked his best finish in his five races back and also served as his fifth straight top-12 result after getting back behind the wheel.
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Despite a 21st-place starting position, Elliott moved his No. 9 LLumar Chevrolet methodically through the field as the event progressed on Darlington's abrasive racing surface. While he just missed out on earning stage points, crew chief Alan Gustafson made steady gains on the car’s balance as the race progressed. Breaking into the top 10 to begin the final stage, the 27-year-old driver held this track position until the caution flag was deployed with 20 laps remaining.
Thanks in part to a quick pit stop (one of many from the No. 9 crew on the day), Elliott gained four spots on pit road and found himself with a chance to win late in the race. Despite sustaining damage in the ensuing restart, Gustafson chose to keep his driver on the track to hold track position and maximize the result. Despite the damage, the risky move paid off as Elliott crossed the line in the third position, his best result since returning in March.
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"It was a solid finish, for sure," Elliott said after the race. "I felt like our No. 9 LLumar Chevy was plenty good enough to go up there and battle with those guys to win. I just struggled so bad in traffic.
"... I just feel like from that standpoint, I’ve got a lot of work to do on my end. Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and our team has done a really good job preparing good race cars. Our pit stops really kept us in the game all day."
As Elliott mentioned, the pit crew was firing on all cylinders during Sunday's race. Over the course of the 295-lap race, they gained him 15 spots on pit road. On the team's final stop on lap 277, they knocked out a 9.742-second stop (per Racing Insights) that gained their driver four spots and helped to set up his third-place finish.
"Really proud of our No. 9 LLumar Chevy team’s effort to keep us in the fight," Elliott said. "Pit stops were unreal, and obviously got really lucky there at the end with those guys crashing, and then the caution coming out quick for myself and guys like Brad (Keselowski) to keep our spots like that."
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Perhaps most importantly, Elliott’s playoff situation continues to drastically improve. When he returned to the seat of the No. 9 entry at Martinsville, his team sat 134 markers below the provisional cutline to make the Cup Series playoffs on points. That gap left it assumed a win would be needed to make the postseason, which was something Elliott even acknowledged upon returning.
Thanks to his five straight top-12 results, Elliott has closed the gap to 63 markers on the provisional cutline. There are 13 points-paying races left until the playoffs begin, so the path on points is becoming increasingly possible.
That said, the Dawsonville, Georgia, native could very well earn a victory before this and lock himself into the postseason regardless. Of the 13 tracks left in the regular season, he has earned six of his 18 career Cup Series wins.
Although this weekend will not be a points-paying event, catch the No. 9 team in action for the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway on Sunday, May 21st at 8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN Radio, and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).