Chase Elliott once more seeks key to a championship

October has been another difficult month for the Georgia-themed sports experience.

Needing one more win for the National League pennant, the Braves instead had to watch the Dodgers' Justin Turner breathe all over the world championship trophy. Just so it can be said, now literally, that winning is contagious.

In a battle of top-3 ranked teams, the Bulldogs lost again to Alabama, but can’t wait for the rematch. Welcome to college football’s version of Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran.

And the Falcons fired a coach, throwing a deck chair off the Titanic for what that was worth.

Chase Elliott, one of those athletic Georgians whose likeness greets you near baggage claim at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, suffered his share during these hometown setbacks. Especially the baseball one. “The Braves had such a good series with the Dodgers and for the Dodgers to go on and win like they did was pretty frustrating,” he noted Friday.

He can’t help where he grew up, but Elliott can try to reverse a trend this weekend. He is among the last eight drivers standing in the next-to-last NASCAR playoff race Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. “Hopefully we can help with that trend for sure – because it has been a rough go,” he said as one of North Georgia’s last chances for sporting redemption in 2020.

For the fourth consecutive year, Bill Elliott’s kid advanced to the round-of-eight in NASCAR’s point-based playoff structure. And for the fourth consecutive year, he needs to do something dramatic in this penultimate race to be among the top four who will compete for a series championship in the finale in Phoenix on Nov. 8.

He currently is tied for fifth in points, 25 behind No. 4 Brad Keselowski. Joey Logano is locked into the so-called Championship Four field. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are fairly comfortable at Nos. 2 and 3. The top four coming out of Martinsville will compete among themselves for the series championship in Phoenix – he who finishes ahead of the other three is racing’s big wheel – while everyone else in the field turns laps for lesser glory.

Point systems can be difficult to grasp. There are ways for Elliott to point his way into next week’s chosen four, but it is difficult to see that without some scenario involving Harvick’s, Hamlin’s and Keselowski’s cars all colliding on the way from the garage to the start line.

There is the one far simpler sure thing. “We need to go win,” Elliott said. “That’s really the bottom line. I’m not even going to look at the points because it doesn’t really matter. If you can’t win races and win consistently in the series, then you’re not going to the championship anyway.”

So, really, best to adopt the strategy of Kurt Busch (who’s eighth in points) for Sunday’s race at Martinsville: “We’re going to be elbows out, not afraid to rub.” Hardly subtle, put colorfully. It sets a mood.

Remembering that Elliott grew up not far from metro Atlanta, you figure that he’s not going to luck his way in either. He already has had communication issues with his crew that cost him valuable track position in a round-of-eight race in Kansas. A thousand parts in a car can break under the stress of a race, but Elliott is hampered by faulty earbuds? Now fate is just making up ways to mess with him.

Recent history has not been kind to Elliott at this stage of the season. He has won three times in each of the past three seasons, and yet the round-of-eight has been a wall he can’t help running into.

As in 2017, when at Martinsville he was two laps away from winning his way into the final four but was wrecked by Hamlin. Harsh words were exchanged at the track. Feelings, if no actual body parts, were hurt. The same year, Elliott was passed for the lead inside 10 laps to go in another round-of-eight race.

Last year was no fun at all, as he made it into the last eight only to finish 36th, 32nd and 39th in the last three playoff races before the finale.

Imagine being on the field of a Super Bowl but having no chance to win it. That’s been the familiar Chase place these past three years in his chosen sport as he ran the season’s last race with no stake in the championship. Elliott has been voted the circuit’s most popular driver the past two years without the benefit of a title. Imagine what an Elliott championship might mean to the sport, as well as his own legacy.

He chooses not to try to imagine that. As Elliott, all of 24, has said in the past, “I don’t necessarily know how I feel about (the importance of a title to his legacy) because when you’re on the hunt for one or you’ve never done it before, I’m not sure I’m thinking about the validation it’s going to give me on the back side. I’m just thinking about that being the goal and that being what I want to achieve and being that next step or the next thing that our team wants to go and have a shot at trying to make the final four.”

On Sunday at Martinsville, a tidy half-mile track, will challenge Elliott’s attitude as well as driving skill. He is not exactly the horse for this course. He has never won there in 10 starts. His best finish was a second last year. His average finish there is 16th.

Yet, Elliott evinces no stress entering the weekend.

“I feel good, feel better probably than I ever have and as relaxed as I ever have coming into that last-chance Sunday,” he said Friday. “I’m looking forward to it. The more that you can embrace that moment and embrace that situation and really enjoy that time, the better you’ll be prepared for a final four one day, if you ever get there.”

And when trying to describe the measured way he wishes to approach this Hail Mary of a race to join the championship caste, a good Braves fan breaks out some baseball-laden imagery. Might even be some good advice in there, somewhere, should a certain team find itself in the running for a pennant again anytime soon.

“I don’t think you have to go hit home runs to win races,” he said. "I think we can get solid base hits with singles and doubles to put ourselves in a position to win.

“Just treat it like a normal race weekend because that’s what it is. We’ll give it our best shot to go try and win. We do that every weekend.”