Chase Elliott won’t have the same kind of hometown advantage this week as he thought he’d have, but there are still a lot of good reasons to keep an eye on him at Atlanta.
On Thursday, NASCAR announced that the races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway would be run without fans in attendance and with limited media access to all but television and radio because of the coronavirus pandemic, which will make this one of the stranger events we’ve witnessed in quite some while.
It’s one thing for the stands to be thin, but drivers can still feel the electricity of tens of thousands fans. This week will be like racing around a ghost town. Still, Elliott will be racing for hometown pride and a place in history. The last time NASCAR was forced to reschedule an event for something other than weather was following the terrorist attacks of 9-11; Robby Gordon won at New Hampshire in what then became the season finale. We will certainly remember who wins this race as well.
Of course that is not the only reason to consider Elliott a strong option this week. All four of the Hendrick drivers have been on the rise. Alex Bowman’s win at Auto Club two weeks ago is part of what made him one of this week’s Four to Watch. In that same race, Elliott had one of the stronger cars and came home fourth.
Elliott was even stronger on the similarly-configured track of Las Vegas. So long as he kept up with the adjustments on his car, he was going to challenge for the win and seemed like the favorite before he lost a valve stem during a pit stop. In that same event, Bowman had one of the cars to beat as well before he was shuffled on a late-race restart. Jimmie Johnson finished fifth in the Pennzoil 400, showing the first sparks of fire from the Hendrick Motorsports organization in quite some while.
At Auto Club the following week three of the Hendrick drivers finished in the top 10 and all of them were in the top 15. The similarly-configured, 1.5- and 2-mile tracks share commonalities to suggest this week will be a good one for Elliott and his teammates.
Last week, Hendrick swept the top 15 again with Elliott in seventh and William Byron scoring his first top-10 of the season. As an organization, they now have one win, three top-fives, six top-10s and 10 top-15s in 12 starts on unrestricted speedways.
Elliott struggled at Atlanta last year and finished only 19th. But that is the only time in his four-race career that he finished outside the top 10 and it’s offset by a fifth in 2017.
Elliott was a little erratic on the 1.5-mile tracks last year, but when he found the setup he was great. In 11 starts on this course type, he scored five top-10s; four of those were top-fives with a best of second at Kansas 2. When he struggled, the cause was most often endemic to the Chevrolet body style, and with two races on unrestricted, intermediate speedways in the books, it appears that problem has been solved.
Career Average Finish: 10.5 in 4 starts (ranked 8th)
2019 Atlanta: 19
2018 Atlanta: 10
2020 Las Vegas: 26
2019 Homestead: 15