Working to Elliott’s disadvantage, Sunday’s Quaker State 400 is not a road race. Right-hand turns are discouraged, punishable by wreckage. And his recent history at Atlanta, a place where he cut his teeth in the down-scaled racing of his youth, is dubious.
He repeats a familiar refrain coming into this race at AMS: “We haven’t really had a very exciting – really, any exciting event there – thus far on the NASCAR front. Hopefully this weekend will be a little different, and we can get something rolling down there. I would love nothing more than to have a good run at my home track.”
He has had one top-5 finish in six starts here. He’s coming off his worst ever finish at AMS in March, 38th, following a failed pre-race inspection, getting caught up in a wreck and then suffering a blown engine. Otherwise his day there was just peachy. At least as last week’s winner, Elliott will start on the pole Sunday.
Elliott is that rarest of sports figures, an Atlanta-area champion. Just 25, he swept to the NASCAR Cup title with a big finish in 2021. He has more wins (two) through 20 races this season than at that stage during the championship run. But the competition is fiercer now, especially from within his own team, Hendrick Motorsports.
All four Hendrick drivers – the others being Kyle Larson, William Byron and Alex Bowman – have at least one race win this season. Between them, they own half the series wins through 20 races so far. Sixth in the Cup points standings, Elliott is looking up at two teammates: Larson (2nd) and Byron (3rd). Bowman’s at No. 11.
Elliott likely will get some of the sternest competition this week from within his own team. Larson finished second at AMS after dominating most of the race in March and has the highest average finish here (12.14) of anyone in the field. Bowman finished third here four months ago.
Being the good company man that he is, Elliott is forever singing the praises of the Hendrick dominance now, even if there are only so many checkered flags to go around. The theory goes that they all can get fat feeding from the same trough.
“It’s super exciting,” he said of his team’s overall excellence. “I feel our company is all pulling in the same direction right now across the board, a lot of departments, a lot of people. That’s a lot of ideas, and I feel every bit of that is thinking in the same direction and pulling in the same direction, really working together well.
“That’s all we can ask for – it’s driving us all to be better and want more. When you have success, you want more of it. I think our group is certainly in that mindset, and we want to continue. Got to keep pushing. It has been a great season so far for HMS, but we want to continue to have the success we’ve been having. We certainly want to be at our best in the fall, which is important.” That’s when Elliott struck a year ago, winning three of the final five races to claim the championship.
Individually, Elliott is semi-pleased with his season – he’s not really much for total self-satisfaction. Some good, some bad he said, which, after all, is the definition of life.
“Just marrying those up into the good-run category would be good,” he said. “It’s been there for us; we just haven’t been able to extract it all the time.”
With racing getting back up to speed post-COVID and the biggest crowd gathering at AMS in a couple of years – and here the No. 9 shirts are de rigueur – the stage is set for Elliott to do something wildly popular. He’s overdue for a home-cooked victory.