Pocono NASCAR Notebook: Chase Elliott On The Tricky Triangle

Chase Elliott (Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Holly Cain

NASCAR Wire Service

Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott smiled and bristled a bit when asked if he returns to Pocono (Pa.) Raceway this week feeling like the reigning track champion after being declared last year’s Pocono race winner after the drivers who finished ahead of him on track – apparent winner Denny Hamlin and runner-up Kyle Busch – were disqualified following post-race inspection.

“He actually gave me the trophy, but he kept the flag – his little girl was kind of married to the flag and it was all good,’’ the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Elliott said. “I appreciated him sending me the trophy. We didn’t win it out-right I certainly would have preferred winning it the way he won it.

“A little bit of a different vibe,’’ Elliott added. “Certainly not in my NASCAR time I don’t remember being gifted a win like that.”

Ironically, Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, returns to Pocono for Sunday’s HighPoint.com 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) in desperate need of a trophy. 

After missing five races with injury and another because of a NASCAR disciplinary penalty, Elliott is ranked only 23rd in the NASCAR Cup Series points standings with six races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field. He is 60 points behind Michael McDowell in 16th place; the final Playoff eligible points position.

Elliott has that win at Pocono last year and is a two-time race winner at the Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course. The series visits Aug. 20 – the iconic road course in upstate New York is where Elliott earned his first career NASCAR Cup Series win in 2018.

Although he has solid statistics to lean on at these next six races, Elliott would obviously rather secure that Playoff position sooner than later and extend his championship-eligible run to eight consecutive seasons – every single year he’s competed fulltime at the NASCAR Cup Series level.

“I hope [we win] here this weekend,’’ Elliott said. “My thought process since all this happened was that we would have to win and that’s what everyone was saying until we had a few good weeks of points and then everyone was like, ‘he can point his way in.’  The storylines can change pretty fast.’’

“Didn’t have the run we wanted to have last weekend [at New Hampshire] obviously, but I thought the prior three to four weeks were certainly better and in the ballgame so that was good. It’s in there, we’ve just got to extract it.’’

Elusive 100th Win

Two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch has earned more trophies in NASCAR’s three national series – 228 – than anyone in NASCAR history. Championships and dominating race wins have been steady and hard-earned.

However, there is still a short list of significant accomplishments the 38-year old is committed to fulfilling, and this week he’ll have another shot at one of them. His Kyle Busch Motorsports NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series team is one victory short of 100 wins. Normally – thanks primarily to Busch’s dominance racing in that series (63 wins) – the team has collected multiple trophies a year so at one point, it was a foregone conclusion he would hoist that milestone trophy sooner than later. It’s been a little later than Busch would have liked.

So, Busch will make a rare drive himself toward that achievement in Saturday’s CRC Brakleen 150 at Pocono Raceway (Noon ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Pocono race marks his fifth and final start in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series of 2023 and the veteran competitor is hoping it will be historic. He won in 2015 and 2018 – the only multi-time race winner in truck series history at Pocono Raceway.

“It would certainly be nice because we’ve been talking about it for way too long,’’ Busch said of the historic win. “That would be good. Just having too many opportunities slip away over the past three years of not being able to get to one hundred by now, only winning one race last year, only winning one race this year. It’s been pretty lackluster so would be nice to have a good strong run out here and get back to victory circle.’’

Bell Prepared for Championship Run

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell won the pole position last week at New Hampshire and had hoped to make up some valuable ground toward a regular season championship in the NASCAR Cup Series. Unfortunately for Bell, he finished 29th in Monday’s rain-delayed race while his JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. won the race to take the championship lead and extend the points difference with only six races remaining until the Playoffs.

Bell, 29, who won in April at the Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway dirt track, is currently third in the points standings, 62 points behind his teammate Truex and 45 points behind Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron. 

The 2017 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Pocono race winner still goes into the weekend optimistic about his chances of challenging for that regular season title and glad his No. 20 JGR Toyota team has time to perfect some things as he tries to earn his second consecutive appearance in the Championship Final Four.

“Certainly, the Playoff schedule is really good for us,’’ said Bell, who will also compete in Saturday afternoon’s truck race at Pocono. “I think all of the tracks – minus Talladega and I think a lot of drivers would be scared of Talladega too – but all of the tracks are really good for us and the performance has been extremely well and the cars have been really fast, but execution has really lacked. That is something that really scares me going into the Playoffs.

“We’ve got a month and a half here, six races to get it cleaned up, but if the Playoffs would be starting tomorrow, I would be worried about it.’’

Living a Legacy

Joe Gibbs Racing driver John Hunter Nemechek – a second-generation NASCAR driver – is currently leading the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship by 33-points over Austin Hill and is two solid races away from claiming the regular season title. 

He concedes, much of his talent, drive and opportunity is a legacy from both his father, former NASCAR Cup Series standout and 1992 Xfinity Series champion Joe Nemechek and his late uncle – and namesake – John Nemechek, who competed in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series.

Of that legacy, Nemechek says he is, of course, inspired but hoping to raise the family bar even more. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s extra pressure,’’ said Nemechek, a four-race Xfinity Series winner in 2023. “I’ve always had the goal of being better than my dad, that’s for sure. I think last week I tied him in total NASCAR wins which is really cool. I think we are both at 20 now. That’s a really neat stat.

“I think that there is no real added pressure there, just because of my name. I think for me it’s trying to make a name for myself. Yes, being able to grow underneath him and then being able to carry on my uncle’s name is really, really neat and it is kind of a family legacy that I get to continue to carry on, but at the same time make a name for myself.

“I want everyone to say ‘that’s John Hunter’s dad,’ rather than, ‘that’s Joe Nemechek’s son.’ “

NASCAR Xfinity Series Qualifying

JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry and Kaulig Racing’s Daniel Hemric will start from the front row in Saturday’s Explore the Pocono Mountains 225 (5:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Berry, driver of the No. 8 JRM Chevrolet, won the pole position with a lap of 167.951 mph around the 2.5-mile Pocono oval for his first pole of the 2023 season and second of his career. Both he and the 2021 series champion Hemric are currently inside the Top-12 Playoff eligible in the standings – but neither driver has a victory yet this season.

Berry’s best finish is runner-up at Dover, Del. Hemric’s best run of the 2023 season is also a runner-up showing – finishing second at both Atlanta races. 

Current championship leader Nemechek will start fifth on the grid alongside the top-qualifying rookie Sammy Smith in sixth place.

NASCAR Cup Series regulars Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez will roll off 13th and 23rd respectively. 

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