Chase Elliott's playoff game plan: improvement and consistency
In his final 10 races in the #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Chase Elliott doesn't feel he can afford to look beyond his own efforts and his own team during his second run in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff (Sunday, Sept. 17 at Chicagoland Speedway at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
After all, Elliott qualified for the postseason on points. In a season where other drivers collected their first career victories-Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.-Elliott, surprisingly, is still seeking his first trophy at NASCAR's highest level. In recent outings, Elliott and his #24 team haven't performed to expectations. As a consequence, improved performance is a priority as the 10-race playoff begins.
"Our game plan right now is to try to focus on ourselves," Elliott told the NASCAR Wire Service on Playoff media day at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte. "We need to be better as a whole. We need to improve, for sure. We need to be competing for race wins. We haven't been doing that recently. I'll be the first one to admit that.
"I think, for us, we've got to focus on ourselves first and foremost, try to be consistent. I think consistency will carry you a pretty good distance in this deal. I don't think consistency will get you to Homestead alone, but I do think consistency will carry you a good ways. That's our first thing right now, try to be consistent and improve ourselves and try not to worry about everybody else right now."
Elliott also hopes to add at least one victory to the legacy of the #24 Chevrolet before he switches to the #9 Chevy at Hendrick Motorsports next year. Jeff Gordon, the only driver ever to win at the Cup level with the #24, recorded all 93 of his victories with that number.
Not only that-the only sure way to advance in the playoff is to win a race.
"I think you're at least going to have to have a really good ability to win a race," Elliott said. "If you're not winning a race, you better have just lost it by not a lot. If you make it to the round of eight, if you're not winning, you better be well inside the top five every week, in my opinion."
FEUD WITH PATRICK COULD COMPLICATE DILLON'S PLAYOFF RUN
One of most widely-quoted clichés from mob movies is "Keep your friends close; but keep your enemies closer."
In Austin Dillon's case, however, the driver of the #3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet might want to stay as far away from Danica Patrick as possible. Repeated contact last Saturday at Richmond between Dillon's car and the Patrick's #10 Ford sparked a rivalry that has the potential to carry over into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff, which starts Sunday afternoon with the Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (Sunday, Sept. 17 at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Dillon is a playoff driver. Patrick is not.
Dillon and Patrick were battling for position at Richmond. Dillon was aggressive in his attempts to pass the #10 Fusion. Patrick defended her position just as aggressively, and the cars touched several times before Dillon gained the spot. Patrick answered with a hard shot to Dillon's rear bumper, knocking Dillon's #3 up the track. Dillon responded with a nudge to Patrick's left rear quarter and sent her spinning.
"She punted me and I punted her back, but she spun out," Dillon said. "I saved mine when she punted me."
Dillon is an underdog in the Cup Playoff, and the prospect of a revenge-minded Patrick settling the score in one of the playoff races is a further complication. Having announced she will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing next year-leaving her future in Cup competition uncertain-Patrick has little reason to restrain herself, should the opportunity to get even arise.
"I will talk to her at some point and I am sure we will be OK," Dillon said. "She could have retaliated at Richmond. I pulled right in front of her to allow her to do it, but nothing happened.
"I was ready to get out of the Richmond race because we sucked so bad. I was like, 'Man, just take me out if you want,' but she didn't do it. I didn't think she was that mad."
BUBBA WALLACE HOPES RPM RIDE MATERIALIZES FOR 2018
As far as Richard Petty Motorsports is concerned, there are two known quantities where the legendary race team is concerned.
First, Aric Almirola will not be behind the wheel of the #43 RPM Ford next season. Second, sponsor Smithfield Foods has opted not to renew its support for RPM next year, choosing instead to shift its backing to Stewart-Haas Racing.
What remains to be revealed is the identity of RPM's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver for 2018. Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., who spent four races in the #43 Ford while Almirola was recovering from a crushed vertebra sustained during a wreck at Kansas in May, hopes he gets the nod. And Wallace acknowledged on Friday at Chicagoland Speedway that he and RPM are working toward that goal.
"Things with the 43 are still shaking out," said Wallace, who was impressive in his four-event stint as a sub. "That's in RPM's hands right now. Obviously, the news that came out the other day (about Smithfield's departure), they are pushing hard to fight through some things and I'm supporting them.
"Nothing is set in stone. We're still trying to figure out what we need to do."
Though there has been speculation that Almirola will follow Smithfield to Stewart-Haas-particularly now that Danica Patrick has revealed she will exit the #10 Ford at season's end-Almirola declined to discuss his 2018 status during a question-and-answer session behind the #43 transporter on Friday afternoon.
"I am not going to comment on 2018," Almirola said. "I am here to comment on finding out I am not going to be driving the 43 car."
Almirola said team owner Richard Petty had notified him he wouldn't be returning to the #43 Ford "many weeks ago."
--- By Reid Spencer / NASCAR Wire Service ---