Hendrick Motorsports playoff bump? Strong days for Elliott, Johnson

Brett Moist/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

JOLIET, Ill. — Call it a ‘playoff bump’ or just a return to form, but two of Hendrick Motorsports’ three playoff drivers – Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson – each enjoyed strong afternoons in the opening race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Elliott led the way for the duo, emerging from a slow summer to contend for the victory in Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400. The Dawsonville, Georgia native led laps for the first time since Martinsville Speedway in April, pacing the field for 42 laps and claiming his third stage win of the year as he dueled with Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. for the victory at Chicagoland Speedway.

In the end Elliott’s day ended in the same as three of his other starts – second, one position short of his first-career victory. However, while the result may not have been the win that the sophomore had hoped for, it was a marked step in the right direction. The run was Elliott’s first top five since his third-place finish in July at Kentucky Speedway.

The run was eerily similar to Elliott’s first start at the 1.5-mile oval, wherein he led 75 laps before finishing third. But the HMS driver preferred not to dwell on the past

“Last year isn’t this year,” Elliott said. “A lot of things change from year-to-year. We haven’t run as good in the summer months as we did last year. I did feel like we peaked at this time last year, but this isn’t last year so it really doesn’t matter. This is this year.

“We need to be better than what we’ve been in the past. I thought that was an improvement today. Obviously we have some work to do to get to that bunch that won the race. Aside from them, I think we were competitive to the rest of the field.”

While he wasn’t as strong as Elliott, defending champion Johnson made the most of the predominantly caution-free race to tally an eighth-place finish and keep his hopes for a record eighth Cup Series championship on solid footing.

“The cars are all so equal at least the guys from third or fourth on back we are all so equal,” Johnson said. “If you could get by somebody on a restart that was really about it, but for me, my car just really wanted to run the bottom of the race track. The higher I would go the looser it would get.  I knew there was a lot of real estate up there to try to take advantage of I just couldn’t make it work and had to chase the bottom all day long.”

The lone HMS playoff driver to struggle on the day was Kasey Kahne, who never recovered from his 25th starting position en-route to a 21st-place result.

Whether the strong day for HMS’ top duo on the opening intermediate will lead to additional success remains to be seen.

Elliott saw promise from their first shot at playoff speed, though he remains uncertain of the organization’s prospects moving forward.

“It’s encouraging,” Elliott said. “There’s also a lot of races that aren’t mile-and-a-halves that are important as well. It was nice to have pace and some good drivability in our car here at Chicago. A lot of the rest of the mile-and-a-halves that we go to aside from (Homestead-Miami Speedway) are a little more grippy than this one, so I’m not sure what that will have to do with our pace or not. We’ll see when we get there.”

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