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Chase Elliott nearly won the NASCAR Cup Series championship a year ago, but his performance Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, was still a much-needed step for the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team to reverse a troubling trend.

Elliott started the final race on the 2.0-mile layout at Fontana in 33rd, and it took him nearly the entire race to get to the front. He finished 10th in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2 before making his way up to second in the final stage. Elliott never seriously challenged eventual winner Kyle Busch for the lead, but he gained the most spots of any driver in the field, and his runner-up finish was still a substantial step in the right direction.

Chase Elliott had a difficult playoff run in 2022 despite being the top seed

Chase Elliott ahead of the 2023 Daytona 500
Chase Elliott | James Gilbert/Getty Images

Elliott entered the 2022 NASCAR Playoffs as the top seed as the regular-season champion, but he needed almost all of his 40 bonus points to survive the first three postseason rounds and make the Championship 4. He had five finishes of 20th or worse through the first nine playoff races, and a 10th-place run in the penultimate race at Martinsville Speedway was his best in the three-race Round of 8 and good enough to have a chance to win his second title the following week at Phoenix Raceway.

He started the championship race in fifth, which was the second highest among the four title contenders. He lined up fifth on a restart with 112 laps to go, but fellow Championship 4 driver Ross Chastain turned Elliott as he tried to block Chastain on the frontstretch. The contact spun Elliott’s car into the inside wall and created enough damage that he lost two laps on pit road and ended his championship hopes.

Elliott finished the championship race in 28th to complete a 10-race postseason that left him with four finishes of 28th or lower and a lone win in the Round of 12 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Elliott and the No. 9 team were unable to find consistent success throughout the playoffs, but intermediate tracks that place an emphasis on aerodynamics were a particular problem for that team across much of the second half of the 2022 season.

Elliott won the July race at the 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway and at the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway later in the same month, although the Pocono win came because NASCAR penalized the top two finishers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch for failing postrace inspection.

Elliott struggled on tracks similar to Fontana last year

The Pocono race was Elliott’s last top 10 at a non-superspeedway race at a track 1.33 miles or longer for the rest of the season. He posted a 20.8 average finish in the final six races on such tracks for the remainder of the 2022 campaign, and there are too many of those types of tracks on the 2023 schedule for Elliott to continue to flounder at those facilities.

Sunday’s event at Fontana had a chance to continue the slide for Elliott, given his poor starting spot due to the starting grid formula NASCAR uses when qualifying is rained out, as it was last weekend at Fontana.

Instead, Elliott methodically worked his way through the field, and crew chief Alan Gustafson had the No. 9 machine running at its best in the most critical part of the race. Yes, Elliott still finished nearly three seconds behind Busch, but his entire 200-lap performance was indicative of a strong team that is still able to maximize its opportunities throughout a race.

Elliott nearly won at Fontana in 2022 before a late-race incident

He got a run on the high side of the frontstretch with seven laps to go when leader and HMS teammate Kyle Larson moved up to block, which sent Elliott into the outside wall. The damage caused Elliott to spin out later in the lap, and he ultimately finished two laps down in 26th.

For what it’s worth, Elliott’s previous best finish at Auto Club Speedway came in 2020 when he finished fourth and went on to win his first career Cup Series championship. He had a win and five top-five finishes with a stellar 12.8 average finishing position on the non-superspeedways longer than 1.33 miles in his title-winning season.

Sunday’s performance at a track such as Fontana might end up being a significant indicator that he will once again be one of the title favorites by the time the Cup Series reaches Phoenix in November to decide the 2023 champion.


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