Dover, Del. — Chase Elliott had been burdened by lofty expectations that come as the son of a Hall of Fame driver and the replacement of a four-time NASCAR champion.
As the close calls and frustrating finishes mounted, and wins eluded him, the 22-year-old Elliott could feel the pressure tighten each time he slipped into the No. 9 Chevrolet.
But once Elliott raced to his first Cup win, the second victory wasn’t far behind, and now the Hendrick Motorsports star pegged as NASCAR’s next most popular driver is thinking championship.
“There isn’t any reason why we can’t make a run at this deal,” Elliott said.
Elliott stayed off pit road during a late caution and avoided similar disasters that struck the Stewart-Haas Racing drivers to pull away and win in overtime Sunday at Dover International Speedway. Elliott earned an automatic berth into the next round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs.
Eight races after his first win at Watkins Glen, Elliott was back in victory lane again — another needed dose of good news for NASCAR following the rousing success of the roval race last week at Charlotte.
Elliott bounded over the wall and high-fived Gordon, the driver he replaced in 2016, and shared a big hug with team owner Rick Hendrick. A year ago at Dover, Elliott coughed up the lead with two laps left to Kyle Busch, in what he called the most crushing defeat of his career.
He left that race 0-for-70 in Cup.
Elliott rubbed his head and leaned against his car, crestfallen as he replayed the final laps in his mind. Jimmie Johnson walked over to offer some encouragement and let Elliott vent.
It was one big celebration on Sunday.
“When he won the race at Watkins Glen, it was like the world was lifted off his shoulders,” Hendrick said.
Bill Elliott did not attend the race, but with more races like this one, it’s not hard to imagine son eventually eclipsing dad’s mark of one Cup championship.
“I think this only elevates his game,” Gordon said.
Elliott’s win means he can breathe a bit easier as the series shifts to treacherous Talladega, where anything can happen on the superspeedway. The top eight drivers after the next two races move on to the next round and Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman are stuck below the cutoff with two races left in the round of 12.
“We’ve had so many opportunities and been so close and had the car to win and been in position and I don’t know, it just seems to not come through,” Almirola said.
Denny Hamlin was second, followed by playoff driver Joey Logano. NASCAR playoff drivers took 10 of the top 15 spots.
SHR was in control with Kevin Harvick early and Almirola late.
Harvick led 286 laps and was on pace to sweep the Dover races until tire issues derailed his run and he finished sixth. Almirola, who led 64 laps late and had his second career Cup win in sight, was running sixth off a restart when he got loose and connected with Brad Keselowski. That triggered a multi-car wreck that collected championship contenders and brought out the red flag to force overtime.
“We were just lucky there and wound up dodging and weaving and being in the right place,” Harvick said. “I guess that makes up for the bad luck of losing the race with an absolute dominant car.”
Almirola had lost the lead when Bowyer wrecked. Elliott was third when he stayed out on yellow, and would lead the final 11 laps.
“I think that was our best opportunity to win the race, and it was our best opportunity to score the most points we could score,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “Even if Denny would have passed us, which was certainly a possibility, it was still going to yield us more points than I think it would have had we pitted.”
They got the points, the win — and a championship hope still alive and well.
In Suzuka, Japan, Lewis Hamilton stormed to victory at the Japanese Grand Prix, claiming his fourth straight Formula One win and moving a step closer to a fifth world championship.
Starting from pole, the Mercedes driver was never seriously challenged and crossed the finish line 12.919 seconds ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was third, 14.295 seconds back.
“The whole weekend has been incredibly strong for the team,” Hamilton said. “It’s a great 1-2 for Mercedes and shows you the strength and depth of our team.”
Hamilton has won six of the last seven races and now leads Sebastian Vettel by 67 points with four races left. He only needs to outscore Vettel by eight points at the next race in the United States to clinch a fifth world championship.
“We’ve gone from strength to strength as a team,” Hamilton said. “And Austin is usually a good track for us so I can’t wait to unleash this beast there.”
Vettel started eighth and quickly moved up to fourth place, overtaking both Toro Rosso cars that started ahead of him.
But the Ferrari driver attempted to pass Max Verstappen on the ninth lap and the two cars collided with the Ferrari spinning off into the runoff. The move dropped Vettel back to 18th place.
“I’m not the one who makes the rules,” Verstappen said. “It was a similar situation to what happened in China with him. He could have been more careful.”
Vettel worked his way back up to sixth but couldn’t move higher than that.
Steve Torrence won the AAA Texas NHRA Nationals at Texas Motorplex for his third straight victory to open the playoffs and first career win in his home event.
Torrence beat Terry McMillen in the final with a 3.786-second pass at 325.92 mph. Torrence has eight victories this season and 24 overall. He leads the standings by 103 points.
Robert Hight won in Funny Car, Tanner Gray in Pro Stock and LE Tonglet in Pro Stock Motorcycle in the third of six events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship.
Hight, the defending series and event champion, powered his Chevrolet Camaro SS to his second consecutive victory. He beat J.R. Todd with a 3.955 at 325.69.
Gray also raced to his second victory in a row, beating Jeg Coughlin Jr. with a 6.622 at 207.62 in a Camaro. Tonglet won for the fourth time this year and 20th overall, topping Jerry Savoie with a 6.892 at 194.80 on a Suzuki. Tonglet also took the points lead.