Young Chase Elliott bright spot for Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville

Photo by Harold Hinson Photography

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Chase Elliott is turning the corner at Martinsville. And it’s a good thing for Hendrick Motorsports.

The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet entered the .526-mile paper-clip-shaped track with finishes outside the top 10 in three previous races. But on Sunday in the STP 500 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, he came home third.

His top-five run came a day after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Saturday.

“I was really proud of our improvements this weekend,” said Elliott, who competes full time in the MENCS. “I hope that it wasn’t just a fluke deal and we didn’t just get lucky today and run good. I really hope that we’ve found something or I have found something at this track that will lend some more consistent finishes that are further towards the front.”

The 21-year-old sophomore driver also won Stage No. 2, though he said it was kind of “handed to us” when Kyle Busch lost the lead on the last lap of that segment as he got tangled with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It’s Elliott’s second stage win — which pays 10 points  toward the race and one for the playoff — of the season.

Still, Elliott knows he needs to master the tiny track, which is on the 10-race playoff schedule.

“For me, at this place I was way much improved than I’ve ever been here in the past, which I thought was great,” Elliott said. “This is such an important race, especially when you come back here in the fall, it’s not a place that you can just get by with running bad in life, expect to just go on in the playoffs if you’re a part of it.”

Elliott’s best Martinsville finish pulled him within four points of Kyle Larson for the lead in the standings. Larson came in with a 29-point cushion.

“Like I said, I hope it’s a consistent trend, that we can continue to run decent here,” said Elliott, a native of Dawsonville, Georgia. “Obviously we’d love to kind of take that next step and try to contend for a win.  But from where I’ve been here in the past, night and day, so I was really happy and proud of that.”

While Elliott had a solid outing, his HMS teammates all ended up outside the top 10.

Kasey Kahne, the next highest finisher in the HMS stable, ran 14th. He was assessed a pit road speeding penalty on exit on Lap 336 of the 500-lap event.

“We kind of ran about the same spot all day,” the driver of the No. 5 Chevy said. “We were really close just needed a little more forward drive and then in order to get that and I was too tight rolling, so we would just go back and forth with that.

“But I think we ended about as good as I felt throughout the race.  Just had some places to make up with speeding, I barely sped.  It was what we were trying to do all day and I just got going a little too quick out of the box.  That put us back a little bit, but I think we finished about where we were.”

Kahne, however did pick up a point in the second stage.

“You want to hold off the car behind you and try to get what you can in front,” Kahne said.  “I think I was around fifth to 14th at the end of the first two stages and it was aggressive.  You want those points.  Where I was, it seemed aggressive, I imagine more so even further forward.”

As for Jimmie Johnson, a nine-time winner at Martinsville, he was 15th.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an eventful day as he was in two accidents en route a 34th-place finish. He was also busted for speeding as he pitted on Lap 392.

“They said I sped on pit road, but hard to believe that, but it is what it is,” he said. “We got back there in the back and got mixed up in something and it’s going to give us a bad finish, but we were having a great time – had a fast car.”

He did recover from that pit road penalty, but on Lap 419, he was part of caution No. 13 that involved seven other cars. This time, he was doomed.

“They just stopped and I couldn’t,” Earnhardt explained. “I got into the back of the No. 5 (Kasey Kahne).  His bumper knocked the top of the radiator off of it, knocked the fitting off the top of the radiator.  We don’t have much of a bumper on there to begin with keeping the cars as light as we can and that is about the second or third time I’ve knocked the top off the radiator here.

“I wish they were a little tougher than that, so we could beat and bang and keep going.”

Earnhardt, who earned his first Martinsville win in 2014, said he still has an affinity for the Virginia track.

“I love this place. It was a lot of fun today,” said NASCAR’s most popular driver. “The car was really good. Greg (Ives, crew chief) and the guys made a lot of changes last night and made our car way better.”

So given the day most of the Hendrick drivers had, it’s a good thing Elliott is showing improvement at Martinsville.

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