TALLADEGA, Ala. – In a sense, Chase Elliott comes to Talladega Superspeedway with the greatest amount of freedom, simply because he has the largest challenge to overcome and the narrowest path to do so.
After unfortunate results at Charlotte and Kansas, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year points leader is 12th in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, 25 points behind Joey Logano and Austin Dillon, who are tied for eighth.
After the Hellman’s 500 on Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN), the Chase field will be cut from 12 drivers to eight, and Elliott likely must win in order to advance.
“I think, for us, we’re obviously disappointed in the way the past two weeks have gone, having such strong cars over the past two weeks and having the ability to go and contend with some of those guys,” said Elliott, who was wrecked in a late restart accident at Charlotte and fell victim to a fluke tire rub at Kansas.
“Obviously, to end like it did was disappointing, but for us it puts us in a pretty simplistic situation for this weekend—having to have a really good run, if not have to win. Like I said, it’s a simple position that we’re in, and we’re up for the challenge and looking forward to Sunday.”
Elliott led 103 laps at Charlotte and had passed Kevin Harvick for the lead at Kansas before his race went south after a green-flag pit stop with fewer than 100 circuits left. Elliott damaged his left rear fender returning to the track and cut a tire in the process. Coincidentally, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne had the same issue at roughly the same time.
“To be honest with you, we’ve kind of come to the conclusion that it was a freak incident,” Elliott said. “We haven’t been doing anything the last couple of weeks that would cause it. So we did identify that it was happening when I would get up on the racetrack off the exit of Turn 2. That’s a pretty abrupt banking change, and we’re hitting it pretty hard under green-flag conditions.
“You hit it hard throughout the weekend, and it was weird that you don’t have that kind of stuff happen. But as those fenders heat up and get warm throughout a day, they can flex and bend easier. I hit the banking with the right-side first, and the left-rear, when it compressed, folded the fender up under the tire.
“Once the car traveled down into the corner, it obviously cut it. The best we can figure out that our incident and Kasey’s was the same, but we hadn’t done anything different the past number of weeks. It was an unfortunate situation for us.”
Elliott, of course, can overcome all his Round of 12 issues if he can pick up his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory on Sunday.
ROLES ARE DIFFERENT THIS YEAR FOR PENSKE TEAMMATES
Last year, Joey Logano did all he could at Talladega Superspeedway to help Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski advance to the Chase’s Round of 8.
Then again, last year Logano was in a position to do so, given that he had won the first two races in the Round of 12. And with his help, Keselowski advanced to the penultimate round with a fourth-place finish.
But in the Hellman’s 500 on Sunday, both Logano and Keselowski will be fighting for their Chase lives. Heading into the Round of 12 cutoff race, Logano is tied for eighth, the final transfer position. After wrecking out of last Sunday’s Kansas race in 38th place, Keselowski is 11th in the Chase standings, seven points behind Logano and Austin Dillon.
Accordingly, each driver will have his own agenda on Sunday.
“Brad was in a do-or-die situation and I was locked in, so our main goal was to get Brad through,” Logano said of last year’s Talladega race, which Logano won to sweep the round. “That was our goal. There was a lot of talk about how we help each other and how we can put him in position to make the moves at the end of the race. I gave him my commitment that I was going be there for him.
“I was going push him along. I was going do everything that I knew how to do to help him win. That situation will happen throughout a lot of other teams this week, but it’s something Brad and I need to have an understanding that, ‘Hey, yeah, we’re going to help each other as much as we can, but we both kind of have to win.’
“It’s a little bit different than that race, but at the same time we’re good teammates. We’re going to race each other and we’re going help each other like we do every single week.”
But they won’t be helping each other at the expense of their own Chase chances.
On Sunday, six-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss his first restrictor-plate race since his debut in the 2000 Daytona 500, breaking a string of 67 straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series plate races. In the Hellman’s 500, Alex Bowman is subbing for Earnhardt, who is recovering from a concussion and will not return to competition this season. ... GEICO has extended its sponsorship of the May race at Talladega through 2019. In addition, GEICO will be the entitlement sponsor of the restart zone all International Speedway Corporation tracks with the exception of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The GEICO Restart Zone was established this weekend at Talladega; starting in 2017, it will be a fixture at 11 ISC tracks. ... Ryan Reed has re-signed a multi-year deal with Roush Fenway Racing to continue competing in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Reed, who was diagnosed with Type I diabetes five years ago, hopes to make his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut in the Hellman’s 500 at Talladega on Sunday. He is one of five drivers competing for four available spots in the 40-car field. ... Drafting with fellow Ford drivers Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne, Greg Biffle paced opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Talladega with a lap at 198.949 mph. The only non-Ford interloper in the top five was Chevrolet driver AJ Allmendinger, who was second fastest at 198.327 mph. ... Jimmie Johnson, who has already locked up a spot in the Round of 8 thanks to his win in Charlotte, led final practice on Friday with a lap of 196.386 mph.