WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) — Chase Elliott is back at Watkins Glen International where he won for the first time at NASCAR's top level. Rest assured that last year's victory on the speedy road course in New York's Finger Lakes region is not on his mind.
"Everybody wants to talk about last year and that's great," Elliott said Saturday before qualifying. "I'm glad last year happened, for sure. Proud of it. But we celebrated it when it was time to celebrate it and now is not really the time to celebrate it.
"It's out of my system. It's time to come back and try to run good," said Elliott, fourth to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman in the first practice. "I felt like we had an OK first practice, but we have some work to do. It's tough. Everybody's real close."
Not close enough to Elliott. He captured the pole position for Sunday's race, outdueling Hendrick teammate William Byron for the top spot.
Last year, Elliott had been mired in a confounding losing streak since the start of his Cup career in 2016. His victory at The Glen came in his 99th Cup start and assured him of his first spot in the playoffs. It also gave him a big dose of confidence after leading a race-high 52 laps, outdueling Kyle Busch to win the second stage, and holding off Martin Truex Jr. at the end.
In the postseason, Elliott won twice more — at Dover and Kansas — though he failed to make the final four.
"More than anything, being fast last year was nice," said Elliott, who passed Busch in a scintillating second segment as the crowd roared and didn't have to worry about him at the end because of a faulty fuel probe that took Busch out of contention after a dominating opening segment. "That's what helps more than anything. Just knowing that we had some decent pace. I think that's the most important thing. If you have pace, then the rest of it can come. Hopefully, we can have that again."
Elliott has already qualified for the postseason with his win at Talladega in May, but after four straight top-fives he hasn't had a top-10 finish in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet since June at Pocono, seven races ago.
The race over the 2.45-mile natural terrain layout at Watkins Glen on Sunday offers a chance to gain some momentum after that tough stretch.
"The frustrating ones are the ones you can control. Making mistakes that we shouldn't make and I shouldn't make. Just cleaning that stuff up," said Elliott, who somehow avoided a crash in morning practice when Matt Tifft spun in front of him. "It happens. I can't say I'm bogged down by it, but I certainly want to get things going on the right path. We still have time to do that. This would be as good a place as any to get things going in the right direction."
Unlike the relaxed surroundings in California at the road course at Sonoma in June, the atmosphere at Watkins Glen offers a different vibe as the playoffs loom. There are only five races remaining in the regular season, and the points are bunched-up at the cutoff line. Ryan Newman is ranked 16th and tied in points with Clint Bowyer, and lurking 12 points behind them is seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. The top 16 drivers make the postseason and Johnson has never failed to qualify for the playoffs since they were instituted 15 years ago.
Just behind Johnson are Daniel Suarez, Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chris Buescher, and among the four only Suarez has not won a Cup race. But Suarez has been stout at Watkins Glen with an average finish of 3.5 and the third-best driver rating.
"I've learned in this sport that you can never be too comfortable," said Stewart-Haas Racing's Aric Almirola, two points behind Elliott but without a win. "There are so many people hovering right around that cutoff line and just outside that cutoff line that can win on any given weekend. I know it might not appear that way, it appears the same cars often win, but everybody in this sport is too good. On any given weekend things could just line up for those guys and they're talented enough, their teams are good enough, their cars have got decent speed where they could pull off a win. A 30-point gap — that can go away in one race."
Denny Hamlin's victory last week at Pocono for Joe Gibbs Racing made it eight different winners in the last eight Cup races. There has not been a repeat winner at Watkins Glen since Marcos Ambrose in 2011-12. Elliott topped the second practice, almost a full second ahead of Martin Truex Jr., but said it was much too early to think about that.
"It's kind of hard to tell," he said. "There's been times where I've ended the day on Saturday excited and thought I had a chance and have been trash on Sunday. We'll find out tomorrow afternoon."
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