Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images via NASCAR

Elliott Locked into Title Defense Mode Heading into Phoenix

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

PHOENIX – After winning his first NASCAR Cup Series championship last year at Phoenix, Chase Elliott is hoping he’ll be able to hit repeat this weekend on the one-mile oval in the Arizona desert.

As one of two drivers in the Championship 4 that have previously won a championship, Elliott noted that having the experience of winning the title last season will help his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team improve their performance this time around as they once again look to end the day atop the leaderboard.

Should he complete the task at hand, Elliott will have familiar company. Hendrick Motorsports legends Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were the last two drivers to win back-to-back championships. Johnson won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 en route to his streak of five straight from 2006 to 2010, with Gordon winning two in a row in 1997 and 1998.

“I felt like we learned a lot about ourselves last year and really what we were capable of and how we could focus on the right things and go and ultimately get the job done, and I feel like our group has exemplified that that weekend and since,” Elliott said.

“I think having gone through that experience once, we can hone in on the things that matter most and make our car go as fast as possible and execute a good race.

“I think just making sure you’re focusing on the right things is really the most important piece of the weekend, and I feel like our group is very capable of doing that.”

All around the city of Phoenix, images of Elliott hoisting the Cup Series trophy over his head in celebration are plastered on billboards and even on the side of one of the highrise buildings downtown, giving him added motivation to be able to bring home another Bill France Cup.

“I haven’t seen them in person, but they were showing me some pictures earlier, which is really cool,” Elliott said. “Yeah, it was a big weekend, honestly. It’s hard to believe it was a year ago already. That’s kind of nuts to me.

“The great news is we don’t just have to come and enjoy it and be done with it. We have another opportunity to try to do it again. That’s where my head is at, and that’s where our team’s head is at, just thinking about that and trying to execute a really solid weekend.”

Elliott rolls into Phoenix on a streak of three straight top-10 finishes at the track, with a top-five in the most recent race in March, a victory last November that netted him a championship, and a top-10 finish in the spring of 2020.

All four drivers in the Championship 4 have had respectable results at Phoenix, but Elliott stated that the team dynamic that is present among the No. 9 team puts them in a great position to repeat as champions.

“I feel like we’re very capable,” Elliott said. “I’ve said this a lot, but I just feel like when our group is at our best, I feel like we can run with whoever. I’ve felt that way for a long time, and I’ve been really proud of the way we’ve run the last couple weeks.

“Had a really strong car at Kansas, had a really good car at Martinsville, and there’s no reason why we can’t go and have a shot to win this thing.”

While there might be pressure to go out and win as the defending champion, Elliott isn’t letting any of that get in his way, adding that his is as focused as he has ever been heading into the season finale.

“My drive and will and want to go be successful is no different today and this weekend than it’s ever been,” Elliott said. “I still want to go and achieve the ultimate goal. Whether you have one championship or 10, I think you still want to go and try to win just as a competitor.”

If Elliott is able to win the championship this weekend, it will be another positive step for Georgia sports fans after his beloved baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, won the World Series earlier in the week for the first time since 1995.

“I was at home and just probably excited and nervous like everybody else,” Elliott explained of watching the Braves in the World Series. “It’s different when you sit there and you’re a fan and you can’t do anything about it. I’m just watching, hoping for the best, like everybody else, I guess as a Braves fan. But it was fun. I’ve never experienced that.

“I love baseball. Love watching post-season baseball. When your team is a part of it obviously it’s way for exciting. It was a good run and happy for all those guys.

“Proud to be a fan and proud of the way they did it, too. I don’t think anybody really expected them to win, so it was really cool.

“The Braves got it done, so the job is not done for the rest of us, but certainly have a great opportunity.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.