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• If the Cup Series season consisted of 36 races at Chicagoland Speedway, Chase Elliott would have a bunch of wins.
Elliott finished second to Martin Truex Jr. on Saturday and led 42 laps in addition to winning the race’s second stage. It was the first time since at Martinsville in April that Elliott had led more than 10 laps in a race.
After the race, Elliott called it a “huge step in the right direction” even if he didn’t have the same pace as eventual race-winner Martin Truex Jr.
“Days like this are the days we are going to have to have,” Elliott said. “There is no way around that … I had a solid day and frankly, it is a lot better than we have been doing and we’ve got to have days like this to keep moving forward.”
Elliott, winless through his first 68 Cup Series starts, led 103 laps at Chicago a year ago. It’s the most laps he’s led in a single race and the speed he showed propelled him to the second round of the playoffs in his rookie season.
His teammate, Jimmie Johnson, was fast at Chicago a year ago after having a summer slump. Johnson didn’t have the same speed he showed a year ago on Sunday, but he finished eighth. That’s Johnson’s ninth top-10 finish of the season and his fourth-straight finish inside the top 12.
Johnson said his car simply wanted to hug the bottom of the track. He knew there was speed to be had in the higher grooves on Chicago’s worn pavement but his car wanted nothing to do with it.
“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,” Johnson said. “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.”
Johnson was mired in a slump in 2016 before his team found speed in the playoffs and he won his seventh title. While Sunday might not have been a perfect day for Hendrick Motorsports, it’s certainly plausible to think the organization could continue to improve over the last nine races of the playoffs.
• The highest-finishing non-playoff driver in Sunday’s race was Joey Logano, who finished seventh. Logano may end up being a guy who scores more points than a majority of the playoff field over the last 10 races.
• Kevin Harvick finished third and he said his team’s focus was simply about not screwing up. With 12 of 16 playoff drivers moving on to the next round of the playoffs, the first round is simply about being pragmatic. Harvick and his team took that approach on Sunday.
“Our focus was to make sure that we didn’t make any mistakes today and everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing worked hard to work on that gap between those cars, but we’ve known about that gap and feel like we’ve closed that up and we knew that not making mistakes was gonna go a long way,” Harvick said.
That gap Harvick refers to is likely between SHR and the Toyota cars of Joe Gibbs Racing. Toyota cars started 1-2-3 on Sunday, but Harvick was consistently the fastest Ford and Elliott had the fastest Chevy.
On the whole, the Toyota camp is the fastest manufacturer. But if the speed that Harvick, Elliott, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski showed on Sunday is real, then there are a couple drivers each from Ford and Chevy who will be worthy challengers to Toyota’s 2017 Cup dominance.
• NBC showed a curious moment during Sunday’s race as NASCAR officials were checking teams’ tires, ostensibly to make sure they weren’t poking holes in them.
“Bleeding” the tires means a team can manipulate the air pressure buildup over the course of a tire run. And manipulating air pressures can help a team have a faster car over long runs.
Ryan Newman’s team was penalized for manipulating tires early in 2015. That was the first season following Newman’s improbable run to second in the 2014 standings when he had six of his 16 top-10 finishes in the last 10 races of the season.
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