Elliott won at Kansas Speedway on Sunday for his second victory in three races, cementing himself as a title threat late in a season in which mighty Hendrick Motorsports has lagged. He needed 98 career starts and maybe a dozen near-misses before he finally closed out his first Monster Energy Cup Series victory.
The breakthrough victory 11 events ago sparked Elliott’s performance in NASCAR’s playoffs, the second round bookended by a pair of Elliott victories. Elliott opened the round with a win at Dover and closed it with the Kansas victory.
“We’re going to keep the hammer down,” Elliott said. “I feel like we are among those guys that you have to beat, and I think that is all you can ask for.”
Elliott is the only Hendrick driver and single Chevrolet representative in the round of eight. Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time champion, was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and Alex Bowman was knocked out Sunday.
Also eliminated Sunday were Team Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski, both winners in the first round of the playoffs, and Kyle Larson.
Larson needed to win to make it into the third round and was frantically chasing Elliott in the closing laps before settling for third. He was docked 10 points by NASCAR earlier this week for an infraction at Talladega, his team lost two appeals of the penalty and he was in a must-win situation at Kansas.
“I’m actually glad that nothing stupid took us out of the playoffs this year — we had that battery come out at Dover a couple years ago, blew up an engine here last year,” Larson said. “I would have liked to have made it into the next round, but I’m glad (elimination) wasn’t anything other than just us not performing where we needed to be that kept us out of the next round.”
Advancing into the third round of the playoffs were Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Joey Logano.
Stewart-Haas Racing has all four of its cars in the round of eight and Ford holds five of the slots. Toyota has two entrants in Kyle Busch and defending series champion Truex.
NASCAR’s so-called “Big Three” of Harvick, Truex and Kyle Busch are still in the playoffs. Harvick, winner of the second stage Sunday, and Kyle Busch, the runner-up to Elliott, have looked like championship contenders all season. Truex has been hot in spurts but finished fifth at Kansas, where he swept both races last season.
“This stuff is hard, man. It shows how difficult it is, you know, to win both races here last year and run second in the spring and then come back trying to be better and struggle all day,” Truex said.
Keselowski briefly flirted with a title run by reeling off three consecutive victories, but he ran out of gas last week when Talladega went into overtime and it crushed his momentum. He was sixth Sunday.
“We needed something to step up, but it just wasn’t there,” Keselowski said. “I am proud of what we did down the stretch of the year. We won three races ... but of course the ultimate goal is to win a championship and we won’t have an opportunity to do that this year.”
Elliott has now taken over Keselowski’s slot as a late challenger to the “Big Three.”
“This is a huge time of year. We’ve got a lot of work to do and a long ways to go,” Elliott said.