No more chasing: Elliott leads standings after podium finish in Iowa

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

Any questions as to whether Chase Elliott is “back” could be put to rest. Following a third-place finish in the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series race at Iowa Speedway, the former champion leads the driver standings for the first time since 2022.

Making his seventh national series start at the 0.875-mile short track, Elliott qualified ninth for the Iowa Corn 350 and was able to stay out of trouble in what was a fairly chaotic Cup debut in the Hawkeye State.

Going into the 350-lap event, the biggest concern for teams was tires, due to a partial repave which lent the track to aggressive surface transitions. During a 50-minute practice session, four drivers had right-front failures after about 20 laps. In the race, there were a total of 10 tire issues between eight cars.

The No. 9 team, led by Alan Gustafson, put together one of the most complete races in the field, hardly challenged by any sort of adversity. 

Elliott tied seventh-place finisher Josh Berry for the third-best average-running position in Iowa at sixth, with race winner Ryan Blaney and runner-up William Byron being the only two drivers to fare better. Speaking on consistency as it relates to this statistical category, this was the 2020 champ’s second-best race of the season next to Martinsville Speedway, where he averaged third in the running order.

In placing third and finishing top-10 in both stages, Elliott earned the third-most points overall with 44 and inherited the points lead from teammate Kyle Larson, who led 80 laps and won a stage, but wound up 34th after being involved in a wreck with under 130 to go.

Not only did Elliott’s seventh top-five of the year tie him for most in the series, it also matched his season total from 2023. More importantly, it marked a major milestone for the Georgia-born driver of 100 top-fives in the Cup Series over 303 starts (33%).

“I thought we were really solid,” Elliott said. “I don’t really feel like I could ask anything more out of my car. I just needed to manage it a little better on the front end of a run with making better pace. Outside that, I was pretty happy with our day overall.

“Congrats to Ryan (Blaney). He did a great job getting up through there, and it’s always good to see him get one if we can’t. Ultimately, really proud of our Napa team continuing to put together some solid days. Just need a little bit more to set the pace and be up there leading laps, like I feel like we can. It’s been nice to be in the fight, though, and have a shot there in the closing laps.”

Elliott did lead one lap during a green-flag pit cycle towards the end of Stage Two, but has only paced the field 137 times over 9-of-17 races this season.

While the numbers are skewed due to missing seven starts and rebounding from injury in 2023, Elliott has already led 70% of his total from the prior season. However, it’s also a far cry from his 513 laps spent out front in the same stretch back in 2022.

Leading laps, which are a direct correlation to dominance, may be the one thing alluding the No. 9 team in 2024, as they’ve set a highly competitive standard that’s now been rewarded with the points lead.

Understandably overshadowed by teammates Larson and Byron, as well as Denny Hamlin, all of who have a series-best three wins this season, Elliott has been a model for consistency and is already locked into the playoffs with his victory at Texas Motor Speedway.

Through 17 races, Elliott is the only driver to place top-20 in every start. As a result, the six-time Most Popular Driver leads the series in best-average finish (9.1) by three positions over teammate Byron (12.5) as the sole competitor with an average inside the top-10. 

Along with getting results, Elliott has completed the most laps of every driver this season (all but 1-of-4,803) with the outlier coming in an eighth-place day at Bristol Motor Speedway, where only five cars finished on the lead lap.

In order to maintain the points lead and keep his top-20 streak alive, Elliott and the No. 9 team will have to overcome New Hampshire Motor Speedway – a place that’s mostly plagued the 28-year-old since his first Cup start there in 2016.

Winless at the 1.058-mile track, Elliott does have a career-best runner-up finish (2022), with another top-five in 2018 and three top-10s total in 10 starts. Last year, he placed 12th after starting 18th.

The good news is, Elliott only has two finishes lower than 20th at Loudon. He also has five top-10s (four top-fives) in six short-track starts this year with 75 laps led. The caveat, however, is his worst finish of 19th came at Phoenix Raceway – one of the tracks NHMS draws the most comparisons from.

“New Hampshire’s been a struggle, honestly,” Ellliott said. “We need to get up there and try to have a better run. Like I said, really happy with the effort, really happy with the car (at Iowa). It did everything, and from my position, that’s all you can ask for.

“I feel like we’ve been working on the right things throughout the course of the season, but just to finish all the races, you have to have some good fortune go your way. For us, we just got to focus on the things we can control, and that’s good prep throughout the week, bringing fast race cars like we’ve been doing, keeping ourselves up there in the fight and let the rest of it figure itself out.”

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