Chase Elliott still chasing that elusive Atlanta win

Ah, good times: Chase Elliott holds up the season championship trophy after winning in Phoenix last year. (Ralph Freso/AP)
Ah, good times: Chase Elliott holds up the season championship trophy after winning in Phoenix last year. (Ralph Freso/AP)

Credit: Ralph Freso

Credit: Ralph Freso

The NASCAR set is all revved up about a first Cup race on dirt in more than a half-century come March 28. Dirtying up Bristol is raising so much interest that perhaps they should take the retro theme all the way and just have the guys run chariots while they’re there. Picture Martin Truex Jr. in a Bass Pro Shops toga.

Lest it get overlooked, they are running Sunday on a perfectly good paved road down in Hampton, although the Atlanta Motor Speedway asphalt is aged and rough and chews up tires like a Rottweiler does a T-bone.

It is the same track that defending Cup champion Chase Elliott calls home, and he would appreciate it if race fans would pay Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 some mind. “A lot of people are talking about Bristol for sure,” Elliott said Thursday. “I hate that for Atlanta, (but) I anticipate the same people who are saying it’s overshadowing the race will likely tune in on Sunday.”

They are gradually folding fans back into the experience, with limited grandstand seating and some infield camping allowed this weekend at AMS. A good number of those in attendance will be pulling for Elliott, son of Bill and keeper of the Dawsonville racing tradition. If only he could hear their cheers through his helmet, over the marrow-rattling roar of 40 stock cars. Being home earns him no favor.

“It’s not like having home field, not like the Braves having home-field advantage for their playoff run. It’s very different. I wish Atlanta was like that for me,” he said.

The 24-year-old Elliott won five times last year on his way to the championship. His 11 career Cup victories cover tracks from Phoenix to Talladega, in states from New York to Florida, Delaware to Kansas. Yet nothing here in his own backyard.

The track that cradled his racing ambitions, where he ran little Legends cars before he could legally drive the Downtown Connector, just won’t give it up for Elliott.

“For us it’s been super hit or miss, and I don’t know why,” he said. “We’ve gone there and had some really good runs, a couple days I thought we were capable of winning. And we’ve been there and just been way out to lunch. I’m not sure why that is all the time. Hopefully this week we can be more on the hit side and execute a good race.” His career finishes at AMS: 8-5-10-19-8. He has four other starts at AMS between the Xfinity and Truck series without a victory.

There could be no better way of getting his Cup championship defense on steady footing than winning on some Georgia asphalt. Although, Elliott said, “I’m not super picky when it comes to wins. I’m good with wherever, honestly.” It would stop a lot nagging questions, though, about when he’s going to get that elusive first Atlanta victory. This is getting to be worrisome, like Dave Chappelle being unable to get a laugh in his own house. He keeps this up, and Elliott will have to start buying his own drinks at the Dawsonville Pool Room.

This young season has had held no shortage of surprise winners. First-time winners decorated the opening two races. Hendrick Motorsports drivers won two of the other three run so far, neither of them named Chase Elliott. There is something to be said for new blood in victory lane, and Elliott will say this about that: “It’s certainly not bad having different people win, why wouldn’t it be good? It’s good from a fan perspective. I think it adds excitement. Predicting these first four or five weeks would have been tough, but none of them have been fluke wins.”

That he hasn’t won yet is hardly cause for Elliott’s team to start losing its lug nuts. This is such a looooong season. And he is practically mirroring the start he had in winning the championship in 2020. Five races into that campaign he had two top-5 finishes, with an average finish of 11.6. This year: two top-5s and an average finish of 11.0.

Certainties are harder than ever to find right now in racing. “It’s just so hard to predict, with just how close everybody is nowadays in the garage and how good these teams are, bringing that next upgrade the next week and trying to get better,” Elliott said.

“I don’t really know what to call it, other than just racing. That’s just what it is; it’s close, it’s tight, a little bit goes a long way when you’re fighting for literal tenths of a second. A half of a tenth can go a long way; that’s just the world we live in.”

Before Elliott goes off to play in the dirt, it would be a very locally popular move were he to shave a fraction or two off his lap times this Sunday.

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