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Did You Notice?: If It’s Time to Worry About Chase Elliott?

Did You Notice? … Chase Elliott remains the only Hendrick Motorsports driver without a top-five finish in 2024?

Through six races, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver has run no better than eighth, leading only 18 laps on the year. Compare that to Elliott’s three HMS teammates, who have combined for three wins, seven top fives and 291 laps led.

HMS also has a pole, earned this weekend at Circuit of the Americas, courtesy of William Byron before he went out and laid waste to the field. While Byron coasted to victory, Elliott found himself a distant 16th, spun out midway through and never in position to be a serious contender. His winless drought is now up to 40 races, the worst of his Cup career since beginning it a frustrating 0-for-98.

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But once Elliott broke through, he got over the hump of early near-misses in a big way. Looking back, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver posted a five-year stretch from 2018-22 most drivers would envy. The 2020 Cup champion, he earned a total of three Championship 4 appearances, 18 wins and nearly 4,000 laps led. He appeared the de facto heir of the HMS dynasty following the full-time retirements of Jeff Gordon (2015), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2017) and Jimmie Johnson (2020).

Instead, since that Hall-of-Fame-level performance, Elliott has regressed. The Kyle Larson signing in 2021 led to a title run that displaced Elliott atop the HMS food chain. 2022 was initially a bounce-back year that ended with an inconsistent playoff run; Elliott limped into the Championship 4 only by virtue of his regular season performance. A crash left him a disappointing 28th in the finale, as Elliott ended that season both emotionally and physically worn out.

“When the time comes, we’ll go to work on it,” Elliott said after Ross Chastain contact ended his title hopes. “But that’s not today. I can assure you that. We’re going to enjoy a little time off, just like a lot of you guys [the media] are. It’s a long season. A lot of effort goes into this deal.

“When we get back to Daytona next year, we’ll be ready to go, and we will put the focus on the things that we feel like we need to put them on and see where we stack up then.”

Of course, everyone knows what happened after that; Elliott broke his leg in a snowboarding accident last March, missed six races and never got back in rhythm. An added one-race suspension for intentional contact with Denny Hamlin during the Coca-Cola 600 sealed the first NASCAR playoff miss of Elliott’s career.

Offseason shoulder surgery followed, leaving Elliott rehabbing yet again as the 2024 season dawned. Despite an off-kilter year, HMS chose to keep things the status quo atop the pit box; Alan Gustafson has returned, although Trey Poole, Elliott’s cousin, replaced Eddie D’Hondt as his spotter.

Now, to be fair, we’re only six races in. Elliott still sits ninth in points, some 42 points above the cutline. His previous track record combined with HMS’ overall speed this season would make a second straight playoff miss a major surprise.

And yet. Elliott is one of just two drivers (John Hunter Nemechek) currently above the playoff bubble without that top-five result. His position differential of -23 isn’t exactly comforting; Elliott’s finished higher than he started only once, during the pack race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

But it’s the road course woes that really give me cause for concern. Since finishing runner-up to Michael McDowell in last summer race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Elliott’s run 32nd, ninth and 16th on the last three events on this track type. The most dominant road course driver in the Gen-6 chassis (seven wins in a four-year stretch) has yet to cash in on a right-turn track even once driving the Next Gen.

That struggle has happened the same time teammate Byron has ascended into title contention. Last year’s six-race winner — a season best — is the first driver of 2024 to earn two trophies. Byron’s doing it in places that are typically in Elliott’s wheelhouse: COTA, Atlanta, Watkins Glen International and Phoenix Raceway.

It’s certainly possible to have multiple drivers from the same team contend for a title. How many times have we seen Joe Gibbs Racing or HMS carry over all four of their cars into the Round of 12, for example? But as the field narrows, it’s almost impossible for everyone to stand out. A hierarchy emerges as the sport gets closer to crunch time.

It’s hard to see Elliott in position to rise right now. In case you didn’t catch it, he had some interesting comments about how the Next Gen car has changed the game for him on the Dale Jr. Download earlier this month. In a conversation with Earnhardt, Elliott insisted last year’s injury didn’t set him behind at all.

Instead? The struggle started long before that.

“I really think we started to struggle at the end of 2022,” Elliott said. “What I saw was, when the Next Gen car came out there in ’22, we fired off really well. And we had a good first half of the season. You would look at the win column and how the season ended up and be like, man, they had a good year.

“I would look at you and tell you we did not … we had a good first half of the year.”

Elliott went on to say the way he drove the old car is far different than how you need to handle the Next Gen. It’s that transition that’s been the hardest for him to master, a struggle Elliott claims Kyle Busch is working through as well.

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“I just think the way that I got away with driving the old car, this thing [the Next Gen], it won’t accept that,” Elliott said. “So you gotta be willing to get outside your comfort zone. I felt some of those things were recognized there at the end of last year. The final couple of weeks was me trying to adjust myself and understand that better. … And this year has been me full-blown trying to transition into a different realm of driving racecars.

“I’ve really enjoyed the challenge because it has pushed me outside of how I want to do things. And I’ve truthfully had a lot of fun with that.”

The enthusiasm with which Elliott is approaching the issue is promising. The difference thus far is the results. At the end of 2023, there felt like real momentum; 83 laps led at Martinsville Speedway, seven straight top-11 results from August through October.

Now? That momentum has stalled out once again at a time the rest of HMS has made themselves the organization to beat. Can Elliott rise up and meet them?

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …

  • In six races, John Hunter Nemechek has two top-10 finishes driving a No. 42 Legacy Motor Club car that had zero last season. Some might say JHN could have waited another year and gotten a top-tier opportunity at JGR if Martin Truex Jr. or Hamlin retired. But he’d still be sitting behind Christopher Bell; you get the sense here that Nemechek is in position to carve his own “legacy” from the ground up.
  • You have to wonder what AJ Allmendinger is thinking over at Kaulig Racing. He has two top-10 finishes in three spot Cup starts, one with a part-time third team, while Daniel Hemric hasn’t even scored a top-15 finish over at the No. 31. Maybe the ‘Dinger enjoys going for trophies as a new father in the NASCAR Xfinity Series? But you have to think he deserved better, especially considering the momentum Kaulig ended the season with last fall.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Kevin in SoCal

Being the most popular driver and having everyone swing from your nuts is a hard thing to handle, and live up to the expectations.

I still don’t understand the Allmendinger thing. Did he want to step back, or did Kaulig not have the sponsorship for him in Cup?

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