NASCAR Barometer: Elliott Breaks Through

NASCAR Barometer: Elliott Breaks Through

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Chase Elliott held off intense pressure from Martin Truex Jr. to take his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series victory in his 99th series start. The pair battled heavily in the final 30 laps of the Go Bowling at the Glen race, but Elliott did enough to weather the storm and make his first appearance in Victory Lane. The win was the 250th for Hendrick Motorsports and locks Elliott into the playoffs. It comes after Elliott had come so close so many times before, and snapped a winless streak for the organization that was approaching 40 races.

This week, the series makes its second appearance at Michigan International Speedway this year. Clint Bowyer took the victory there the first time in a rain-shortened race, holding off teammate Kevin Harvick. Harvick and the other two championship favorites will likely be top fantasy choices again this week with the return to oval racing, but Chevrolet is starting to make ground as Hendrick begins to figure out how to get the most out of the new body. Elliott grabbed a top-10 finish in that race, and Sunday's win on the road course could be the start of many wins to come for the young driver.

UPGRADE

Chase Elliott – Watkins Glen was another great weekend for Elliott, but this time he closed the deal and held off Truex in an epic battle for his first career Cup series win. He was quick early in practice and qualifying, and brought that pace to

Chase Elliott held off intense pressure from Martin Truex Jr. to take his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series victory in his 99th series start. The pair battled heavily in the final 30 laps of the Go Bowling at the Glen race, but Elliott did enough to weather the storm and make his first appearance in Victory Lane. The win was the 250th for Hendrick Motorsports and locks Elliott into the playoffs. It comes after Elliott had come so close so many times before, and snapped a winless streak for the organization that was approaching 40 races.

This week, the series makes its second appearance at Michigan International Speedway this year. Clint Bowyer took the victory there the first time in a rain-shortened race, holding off teammate Kevin Harvick. Harvick and the other two championship favorites will likely be top fantasy choices again this week with the return to oval racing, but Chevrolet is starting to make ground as Hendrick begins to figure out how to get the most out of the new body. Elliott grabbed a top-10 finish in that race, and Sunday's win on the road course could be the start of many wins to come for the young driver.

UPGRADE

Chase Elliott – Watkins Glen was another great weekend for Elliott, but this time he closed the deal and held off Truex in an epic battle for his first career Cup series win. He was quick early in practice and qualifying, and brought that pace to the race on Sunday, passing Busch for the lead in the second stage and going on to win the segment with ease. Things got more difficult in the final stage as Truex closed and pressured him through the final 30 laps, but Elliott held on to score a long overdue victory. Elliott has finished in the top 10 in all five of his Cup visits to Michigan, and had three consecutive runner-up finishes at the track in his first three tries.

Kyle Busch – Busch was aggressive from the start on Sunday, pressuring teammate Denny Hamlin hard in the opening laps to take the lead. Busch eventually made the pass and led the remainder of the stage until pitting with three laps to go with his eye on the race win. A botched pit stop in the final stage meant he had to come to pit road to get a tank of fuel, however. Still, he stormed back through the field and was third by the time the laps were finished. Busch was consistently the quickest car throughout the weekend and only mistakes cost him the win. Next week sees him return to Michigan where he finished fourth after starting third earlier this year.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex won the opening stage at Watkins Glen after running up front early and settling in behind Kyle Busch in the opening laps. After Busch's fueling issue, it was only Elliott that Truex had to contend with for the win, but Truex simply didn't have the speed to get close enough to Elliott to attempt a pass. His pressure on the first-time winner was heavy but ultimately gave way when the car ran out of fuel with just a few corners remaining. He coasted across the line to finish second in a tremendous road course shootout. Truex has never won at Michigan, and in 25 starts only has six top-fives and nine top-10s. He finished 18th there earlier this year and didn't lead any laps.

Kurt Busch – Busch didn't have the best starting position on Sunday, but he quickly worked his way through the field to be at the front for the final miles. Busch said ahead of Sunday's race that he was typically hard on brakes at Watkins Glen and would need to be gentle on them as he came forward from his starting spot. He raced his way to another top-10 finish and didn't have the serious equipment issues he feared. He now sits top in points among nonwinners but will still be gunning to join his teammates with a victory in 2018. That could come this week, too. Busch has three Michigan wins and started from pole there earlier this year as he raced to third position.

Daniel Suarez – Suarez's fortunes appeared bright heading into Sunday's road course race, but a stumble in qualifying made things more difficult than they should have been. His performance at the track last season was a great one, and he duplicated it on Sunday despite starting down the order in 21st position, though. It was another impressive road course display from the Joe Gibbs Racing driver and will certainly make him a name that fantasy owners must consider at these courses in the future. This week the series returns to ovals, though. In three Michigan starts he has yet to score a top-10 finish. That doesn't inspire confidence for fantasy owners, but he and the team should be buoyed for a best finish at the track after last week's Watkins Glen success.

DOWNGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin started Sunday's race on pole. He battled teammate Kyle Busch at the start but ultimately had to give way. He did well to remain among the top runners early in the afternoon but lost his track position after suffering a disastrous pit stop under caution. Luckily, that issue only lost him track position with a penalty but could have easily spelled the end of his afternoon. However, unlike his teammate, who also had trouble on pit road, Hamlin was only able to make his way back to the 13th position before the distance ran out. The quest for a win this season continues in Michigan. Hamlin finished 12th there earlier this year but does have two career wins at the track.

Joey Logano – Early contact in the carousel turn ended up costing Logano his entire afternoon. Hamlin was forced to check up in the turn causing a concertina effect with Logano slamming into the back of Kyle Larson. Logano then missed the turn in at the end of the back straight and went through the grass to pit road. Unaware that the officials had put the car on the damage clock, Todd Gordon sent the car to the garage to repair an oil leak, which meant the car was out of the race. It was a huge mistake on the team's part. Things haven't gone well for Logano since his win earlier this season, and a long run in the playoffs doesn't look likely at the moment.

Jimmie Johnson – Contact with A.J. Allmendinger sent Johnson into a spin and an unscheduled pit stop to change his flat-spotted tires. That was unfortunate considering Johnson was capable of a top-10 finish at Watkins Glen. It was another missed opportunity for the winless former champion. The playoff picture also got worse for him, as teammate Elliott took another spot in the title fight away from nonwinners. Johnson maintains a comfortable margin in points but could conceivably be bumped should more new season winners triumph in the handful of races remaining in the regular season. Johnson needs a top performance to redeem his disappointing season, but after finishing 20th at Michigan earlier this year, there will be big questions for this weekend.

Aric Almirola – Watkins Glen was another disappointing week for Almirola. He has yet to have a good outing at the circuit, and Sunday afternoon was no different. Early in the running he had contact that sent him spinning into the wall. He never recovered from that incident and finished outside of the top 20. The slip up makes his playoff bid a bit more precarious. His 602 points puts him two spots above the cutoff line, but more first-time winners this season could drop him out of the title hunt. Another good Michigan race this weekend could give him more of a cushion, though. It's a track where he has never scored a top-10 finish, but 12th- and 11th-place finishes in his last two visits show a top finish isn't far away.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

William Byron – Rookie racer Byron pulled together an impressive weekend at Watkins Glen. The Hendrick Motorsports driver qualified 16th, which would have been about where fantasy owners should have expected, but by race's end, he had worked his way into a top-10 finish in his first Cup series outing at the circuit. The finish was his third top-10 of the season and second consecutive after finishing sixth at Pocono two weeks ago. This trend in finishes could make Byron a factor as the series returns to tracks for the second time this year. His previous Michigan start was a 13th-place run, and fantasy owners should pay close attention to what he is able to accomplish compared to this weekend.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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