By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Some season firsts took place for Chase Elliott’s No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 during Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, including his best track finish after coming up 0.594 seconds short of dethroning the dominant Brad Keselowski, who led 446 of 500 laps.
The 23-year-old’s strong result marked Chevrolet’s third top-five of the season, and not only Elliott’s best finish of the season thus far, but Hendrick Motorsports first top-five all season in a track that’s been their yard for well over a decade-and-a-half.
Perhaps more intriguing was his 49 laps he was in front of the field, the second most behind Keselowski, as it marked Elliott’s first laps led all season and the first time his No. 9 Chevy led since last November at ISM Raceway, seven races ago.
A few laps after the restart for contact between Ty Dillon and William Byron, Elliott took the lead from Keselowski on lap 325, and during that time period which he led, his car saw solid improvement and pulled away from him for a period of time. His time at the front showcased that he’s out there to spoil Keselowski’s reign of terror at “The Paperclip.”
Elliott’s stint at the front ended during pit stops on Lap 374 as none other than Keselowski, regained the race lead by virtue of exiting out of pit road first, but the sport’s most popular driver continued to be quiet, strong and consistent in the top-five.
On the final restart with 46 laps to go, Elliott was on the verge of capturing that elusive Martinsville win, battling with Keselowski for the lead, but also trying to hold off Kyle Busch, who was fighting for his third straight win and capture the weekend sweep in his 1000th NASCAR start across the three national series.
However, Keselowski’s strong No. 2 Reese Ford Mustang was able to get off the corners better than Elliott and was able to hold him off for the race lead. Regardless, Keselowski wasn’t able to pull away from Elliott too much as he tried catching him in the closing laps.
Coming to the final lap, Elliott gave it one last effort to inch closer on Keselowski’s bumper in Turn 3, but to no avail as he wasn’t close of passing him, and had to settle for his and HMS’s first top-five since their last Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory at Kansas Speedway last October.
Elliott wasn’t sure what needed to be done to get by Keselowski, but when his car was running in front of him, it gained him an advantage.
“I don’t know. It was really tough. Our NAPA Camaro was good,” said Elliott. “I felt like we were about as even with him as we could be. When I did get the lead, I felt like there was a little advantage to being out front and being able to work traffic your way and play off it and whatnot.”
He added that had he moved up on Keselowski sooner, there would’ve been a chase of getting by him in Turn 3, the sport that’s determined key outcomes of the races, including the last two out of the last three Martinsville races prior to Sunday’s race.
“I tried to move up there at the end and I don’t know if I could have got to him. Maybe if I moved up a little sooner, maybe,” Elliott explained. “But, I tried to get to him there in (Turn) 3, but maybe next time.”
Elliott improved three spots in the championship standings, now sitting ninth for his first appearance in the top-10 this season, 87 behind points leader Busch, who ended up third.
From the short track to the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway is the Cup Series’ next destination for the running of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 March 31. Elliott has two top-fives and five top-10 finishes in six starts at the Lone Star State, solid enough for a 7.2 average finish, the best among the field with at least five starts.