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Up to Speed: Chase Elliott Still Searching for Momentum

Hendrick Motorsports is off to a flying start in 2024.

William Byron and Kyle Larson combined won three of the first six NASCAR Cup Series races this season, including Byron’s triumph in the Daytona 500.

Alex Bowman, who has battled injuries over the last 18 months, has posted three top fives and looks closer to breaking a long winless spell.

Then there is Chase Elliott.

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Elliott has been lost in the shuffle since this season began. It’s an unusual position for him to be in given his status as NASCAR’s most popular driver and perennial title contender. Elliott is still only one of two drivers in the current Hendrick squad to win a Cup Series championship and he is the only driver of the four who has reached the championship race more than twice.

The No. 9 should be every bit as fast as the other Hendrick cars. Yet it still feels like Elliott is missing something, something that has held his team back from finding the speed they had a few years ago.

To be clear, the Cup Series season is long and the No. 9 is not in dire straits.

Through the first six races, Elliott is ninth in the overall standings, 47 points behind leader Martin Truex Jr. in what is still a tight points race. You might even be surprised to learn that Elliott is just 10 points behind Byron. The No. 9 team could easily leapfrog the No. 24 at Richmond Raceway this weekend, where Byron only has two top 10s in 11 starts. If Elliott is off compared to his teammates, he is certainly not far behind.

The most significant thing that Elliott is missing is raw speed. Byron and Larson have had it since the beginning of last season, and Bowman appears to be making progress. Elliott, on the other hand, has gone backward in the speed department, especially since the 2022 playoffs. Recall how Elliott looked like the championship favorite during the 2022 regular season.

He took the points lead five races into the season, never relinquishing it until the playoffs began. He also won four races during the regular season (no one else won more than two) and began the postseason with a series-best 40 playoff points. In a season remembered for parity and surprises, Elliott still appeared to be a cut above the competition.

Yet once the postseason began, the No. 9 team found that all those playoff points were necessary just to stay in the game. Elliott either lacked the speed to contend for wins or had a problem that knocked him out of contention in the races where he did have a fast car.

A win at Talladega Superspeedway advanced him to the Round of 8, but finishes of 21st, 14th and 10th in the next three events only got Elliott to the Championship 4 by the skin of his teeth. The title slipped away from the No. 9 team in the season finale, a missed opportunity in an otherwise strong season.

Unfortunately for Elliott, whatever issues he and his team had at the end of 2022 carried over into 2023. Their struggles shockingly culminated in Elliott missing the postseason for the first time in his career. Missing several races, including six to recover from a snowboarding injury and one for a suspension, obviously did not help matters. Yet the reality of NASCAR’s playoff format is that Elliott still could have qualified by either winning a race or making up the points deficit on the 16th driver in the playoff grid. Neither of those goals was immediately out of reach for the No. 9 team.

When Elliott came back from his suspension, he immediately reeled off three consecutive top-five finishes. After those races, he was 24th in points, 55 points below the playoff cut line with eight races to go in the regular season. All Elliott had to do to reach the postseason was gain seven points on the cut line per race, and that’s assuming he would not win. Surely the fastest team from the previous season would not have a problem hitting those marks?

But as 2023 went on, it became clearer that the No. 9 was not the fastest team anymore. Whether that was because of injuries, the rise of Byron or just the cyclical nature of professional sports, Elliott lost whatever magic he had in 2022.

Just look at his team’s laps led totals.

During the 2022 regular season, the No. 9 team led 719 laps. That number dropped to just 138 in the 2022 playoffs. In the 35 starts Elliott has made since the beginning of 2023, he has led only 213 laps. He also remains winless since his Talladega victory in the fall of 2022.

Even the road courses, a traditional stronghold for Elliott, have not been kind to him recently. His last road course victory was at Road America in the summer of 2021. Since then, the drivers to beat on road courses have been Larson, Byron, Tyler Reddick and AJ Allmendinger.

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The Underdog House: NASCAR Underdogs No Match for AJ Allmendinger at COTA

Byron dominated the race at Circuit of the Americas last weekend, a classic case where the driver with the best car made no mistakes and cruised away from the field. Elliott ran mid-pack for most of the race, got penalized for short cutting the turn 4 esses on lap 39, and lost his shot at a top 10 with a late spinout. An otherwise quiet 16th-place finish was all that the No. 9 team could muster.

So, where does Elliott go from here?

He has not had any truly bad results in 2024 and he will have a much better chance to make the playoffs this year simply by running all of the races. Yet until Elliott and the No. 9 team recapture their speed, they are not a serious championship contender. The balance of power at Hendrick remains in Byron’s favor, with Larson as his closest pursuer.

If speed is any indication, the No. 24 will be one to watch in ’24.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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jw

Chase was coming through the field and was in 5th or 6th place when he got loose and missed one of the esses. He then came through the field again and was knocking on the door of the top ten when he spun. He had speed but also bad luck Sunday. To get to 16th with the way the 9 team’s day went was actually quite the accomplishment. How about articles on other former championship drivers who are on long winless streaks, 101 races, such as Brad K? It’s hard to win in Cup period!

MikeinAZ

It’s looking more and more like Chase is in the same boat that Dale Jr was in. Jr never matched up to his dads driving abilities, either. Elliot’s on the top team in NASCAR too, just like Jr was. Hendrick has already won 3 of 6 races this year and it’s looking more and more like it will be Chevy to the championship in NASCHEVY.

Bill B

Maybe if the final race was somewhere besides Phoenix. As it is, it looks like Toyota may have an edge based on race 1 at Phoenix.

Echo

I agree 100% about Toyotas at Phoenix. When I saw how good they were I prayed Hamlin doesn’t make the final 4.

MikeinAZ

I’ll take Hamlin making the final four over any of the Hendrick drivers.

Bill B

You can take Hamlin and…..

LOL

MikeinAZ

I live in Phx and it’s great having the championship race at the Phx track.

Bill B

I bet. That’s a sweet deal for as long as it lasts.

Phoenix is not one of my favorites to watch, but I’d be fine with it if they made the length 400 miles or longer. The championship race should be substantial and indicative of the lengths they run at most ovals during the season.

MikeinAZ

You’re correct about the length of 312 miles. It’s been that way for a long time now. They definitely torqued my shorts when they cut the length to 312 miles many moons ago. I’ve always said that for the money we pay to go to that race, it should be at least 400 laps.

Shamus Harris

He was moving up at Daytona as well. He moved to the top to start a third lane where he was blocked by Bowman. I think he worries too much about his teammates.

wildcatsfan2016

Interesting point of view. I have always considered that Chase only worries about Chase but perhaps I’m wrong.

Wanda Elmore

He needs a new crew chief . This one did the same thing to Jeff Gordon.

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