News Analysis: Chase Elliott docked 15 points, Alan Gustafson suspended for spoiler modification

What happened: Chase Elliott was penalized 15 points and crew chief Alan Gustafson and car chief Joshua Kirk were suspended for one race apiece — plus a $25,000 fine for Gustafson — after NASCAR ruled the No. 24 team illegally modified the spoiler at Chicagoland using tape. In addition, the race was ruled to be an encumbered finish — meaning Elliott will not get credit for the playoff point he earned at Chicago if he makes Round 2.

What it means: On Monday, several teams sent pictures and video around the industry of the No. 24 team appearing to have tape hanging off the spoiler and down the sides of the car. This photo evidence was sent to NASCAR and also ended up on Reddit, where it became public. It’s interesting the teams, who have photographers shooting high-resolution images of every car during the race, became sort of a second set of eyes for NASCAR after studying the pictures (Elliott had passed at-track inspection after the race). This shows if there’s a visible part of the car that is illegally modified, teams themselves are likely to catch it and report to NASCAR and/or the media in order to keep a level playing field for themselves. Ultimately, though, the penalty might not harm Elliott that much; he was a comfortable 33 points inside the cutoff, but now falls from sixth place to eight place — 18 points head of the final playoff spot for Round 2.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. This isn’t very big in the grand scheme of things, but it’s newsworthy in the sense that the NASCAR community — namely the teams, but also Reddit by proxy — sniffed out an act of cheating.

Three questions: Teams privately have said the tape added a significant amount of downforce to the car, but how much of a difference did it really make? Is there any way this could actually cost Elliott in terms of making the next round? What else will the garage be able to find in future weeks by examining the photo evidence each team takes during races?

News Analysis: Hendrick Motorsports changes numbers

What happened: Chase Elliott will switch from No. 24 to his family’s famed No. 9 next season — along with the current No. 24 team — and the current No. 5 team with William Byron will instead become the No. 24 team. The No. 5 will not be used by Hendrick next season, though team owner Rick Hendrick said in a news release he would not rule out its return at some point in the future.

What it means: Bill Elliott used the No. 9 for a large part of his career and son Chase followed suit as he rose through the ranks, so this is a dream come true for the Elliott family. Meanwhile, Byron now will enter the Cup ranks with higher expectations on his shoulders. Even though it’s just a number switch — and Byron will be with what is now the No. 5 team, which has underperformed — the prospect of Byron in Jeff Gordon’s car number is significant. Longtime Elliott fans may be on board with the move, but newer Elliott fans — many of whom had warmed to the driver because he was Gordon’s successor in the 24 — may be wondering what to do now.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. Even though it’s just a number change, it’s a pretty big deal to have a new driver in the famous No. 24 car, see the No. 9 return with an Elliott driving it and watch the cursed No. 5 car disappear — all in one announcement.

Three questions: Will Gordon fans who started backing Elliott because he was in the No. 24 follow the driver to the No. 9, or will they root for Byron and stay with the number? Will the No. 9 team be able to shake whatever bad luck comes with being the “fourth” number at Hendrick (No. 5, No. 25)? What is our obsession with car numbers in NASCAR and why does it seem bigger than jersey numbers in other sports?

12 Questions with Chase Elliott

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues this week with Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports, who is seventh in the NASCAR Cup Series standings entering the final two races of the regular season.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I feel like for me at least, a lot of it’s been probably from working at it, or at least having smart enough people around me to help me work through the different things that I’ve struggled with over the years. So I would probably attest it more to the knowledge of the people around me and their expertise in racing, or just dealing with people in general more so than anything, I feel like.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I’ve had this question a few times and I don’t really know that there’s a right or wrong answer. But in my opinion, whatever people can find a genuine relationship with in a driver, whatever that is — if it’s a passion that they share with the driver or a thing they like about that driver, the driver’s attitude, the way they race, whatever it is — as long as they can make that connection with them and be genuine and not pull for somebody because somebody told them to, then whoever it is — if it’s me or somebody else, I’m good with that. It’s everybody’s right and decision to pick their driver and pull for them. If it’s me, great; if it’s not, then I get it, too.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

I’d say just managing our time. There’s just so many ways you can go about your week and different places we have to be. For us, we have meetings on Tuesdays, so a lot of times your week can be very broken up from traveling on Sundays, getting home on Sunday night, having Monday at home, Tuesday meeting day, Wednesday off, Thursday travel day. So not a lot of consecutive days in one place. I think just managing the time you do have in different places to try and make the most of the time you have off is pretty important.

As you know, we have a long schedule, and not getting too drowned in it throughout the entire year can be important to us. For us, we do it every week; it’s not just a region that we live in and can go to a couple of races a year, so we have to be very mindful of our schedule and try to keep it equal throughout the year.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

That’s a good question. If you’re eating, I’d say definitely not. I wouldn’t want to come bother them while they were eating dinner. I think there’s a right and wrong way to do that; it’s definitely further appreciated when someone will take some extra time — if they have the time — to wait until you’re done eating or at least wait until you’re walking outside or whatever. That will certainly be appreciated.

We try to get to everyone we can. Obviously we can’t get to everyone all the time. But when that does happen, I think just be aware of the conversation. We’re probably with friends or family, and that’s time away from the track and away from things. So any kind of respect as far as waiting and hanging out will be appreciated.

So you don’t mind an autograph as long as you’re not shoveling food at the moment. If you get up to leave, then you’ll do it?

Absolutely. I’m fine with it, it’s not a problem at all. But definitely it is the respect of when you’re eating or when you’re spending time with the people you’re with. That’s where, sometimes, it can be frustrating.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I would say the playoff bonus points that have been going on throughout the years. It’s kind of something that the TV didn’t really talk about a whole lot until, I feel like, halfway through the season, and to me that’s what’s gonna make up the majority of our playoffs, and the guys who have won stages, won races and have racked up all these points.

I mean, we’ve got guys who’ve got in the high 30s of points, and that will just about carry them all the way to Homestead, if you know what I mean. Someone has a race advantage on you starting each round? That’s huge, and I don’t think we’ve emphasized that enough. Or at least I haven’t seen it. Maybe somebody has. But that’s a big story and one that’s gonna shape our playoffs.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Ryan Blaney.

Talking about your trip to Europe (which they are currently on)?

Well, yeah, a little bit about our trip. We were discussing that.

But we were hanging out here (at Bristol) last night, we were wondering what all the people were doing walking. We didn’t realize the hauler parade was going on last night, so we were wondering what was going on.

We got in a golf cart, rode around. We were trying to find a group in the campgrounds that was playing cornhole. We wanted to go play cornhole, so we were trying to find a happening spot that was having a good time so we could join in. But we didn’t find anybody because there were all down here watching the hauler parade.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t really see us as that. I think our personalities and the differences of opinions in personality might be entertaining, but I can’t say that we’re entertainers.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I tell you, when something really didn’t really go the way you thought it should go or somebody’s not racing you correctly or the way you feel like you should be raced, it can be frustrating. I think that’s where it comes from. My policy on it is it’s probably better to not (use it) in general. Just doing nothing is probably the best thing, that’s probably gonna frustrate people the most. But at the end of the day, there’s gonna be times where you have to do something and those are just those frustrating days. So yeah, it’s been done.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

I definitely do, 100 percent. Racing is something that always comes full circle. There’s times if somebody helps you on early on in the race and you have the chance to do the same for them and it makes sense, then sure.

I think there comes a time in the race where those breaks and the slack are a little more forgiving at the beginning of the day versus what you can do at the end. We all understand that we’ve got to race and it’s hard to be as forgiving toward the end of the races because you’ve trying to fight for what you have. But if you’ve got a guy and they’re way better than you and it’s early on in the race, you’re doing nothing but holding both of you up.

In a lot of ways it seems dumb to let a guy go, but what could potentially happen is you’re slowing him down, the guys behind you are also catching you, so instead of falling behind and trying to make some lap times you might just get freight-trained when the next group catches you. It’s something that we’re all kind of conscious about as the race goes on, so I definitely pay attention to that and try to race guys how they race me.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I can’t think of anybody outside the racing world. I mean, other than drivers, unfortunately I’m not cool enough to have dinner with entertainers or anything. So I don’t know of anybody.

No Eric Church?

Nah, no Eric Church. I hung out at dinner with a couple other performers, Chase Rice being one of them. He’s a super cool guy and great entertainer. But aside from the country music world or racing, I don’t know. I’m not sure on that one.

Well you have a high ceiling to improve on that.

Alright, fair enough.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

A lot of things. I think just, as far as racing stuff goes, I think as time goes on you want to try and take that next step and put yourself in that next caliber of drivers and not so much stay in one place long enough where you get labeled as that. So for me, I want to improve results, improve our qualifying efforts and really just improve our entire weekend.

I want to be, and I want our team to be, someone who people pay attention to. I don’t want to pay attention to them, I want them to pay attention to us and what we’re doing and us be a factor for them every single weekend. That’s probably the biggest thing I want to improve on, and I think it takes a lot of different things to make that particular thing happen. But I think that’s the ultimate goal.

12. The last interview I did was with Brett Moffitt. His question was: Whiskey or beer?

I was on a beer train for a little while, but I’ve kind of re-swapped over to the whiskey. So I’d say whiskey right now.

The next interview is with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Do you have a question I can ask Ricky?

Is he part of the golf (group), those guys?

I’m pretty sure he’s in the Golf Guys Tour, yeah.

So I wanna know how his golf game is, and if he plans on winning their championship or not.

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

News Analysis: Chase Elliott gets contract extension through 2022

What happened: Hendrick Motorsports signed Chase Elliott to a contract extension through 2022, adding four years to his current deal. He originally had a three-year contract, which would have expired after next season.

What it means: As expected, Elliott is going to be at Hendrick for a long time. Though Jimmie Johnson has indicated he’ll be around for a few more seasons, this sets up Elliott to become the face of Hendrick as the next decade approaches. It’s easy to picture Elliott spending his entire career with the team if circumstances allow.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. It’s not at all surprising Elliott would remain in the No. 24 car, given how quickly he’s shown talent at the Cup level — along with his popularity, sponsor friendliness and relationship with the team. But as with Joey Logano — who signed a long-term deal with Team Penske in February — the news is notable in part due to the length of the contract (since drivers typically sign up for three years at a time).

Questions: Will the security of a long-term deal change anything in terms of the pressure Elliott puts on himself? How many wins will Elliott and the No. 24 team get during this contract? Who will Elliott’s teammates be in 2022?

Chase Elliott is prepared for take off

Chase Elliott is all business at the racetrack, and that makes his social media feed a valuable source of insight into who the 21-year-old budding superstar really is.

If you follow Elliott, you know he likes the Atlanta Braves and Eric Church. But there’s something else he also posts about on occasion that seems intriguing: Flying his own plane.

Elliott has a Beechcraft Baron he uses to fly himself back and forth to most of the races in the southeast. He’s based out of Georgia, so the furthest he’s flown is New Hampshire Motor Speedway — though he also twice flew to Michigan International Speedway last season, as well as Texas Motor Speedway last fall.

His love of flying came from his dad, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, who became a pilot at age 21 and is still an avid flier to this day.

“I was always intrigued by my dad flying,” Chase said last week. “I was very lucky to grow up around him and when I was real little, flying places was just such a cool freedom to have. I always looked up to him a lot, not only for his racing, but for that.”

As a kid, Elliott can remember watching his father work on airplanes when they weren’t at the racetrack. So he’s always had an interest in becoming a pilot himself, and he got his pilot’s license in 2015 at age 20.

He moved up to the Baron from a Cessna 182, but it’s still a relatively small plane with no bathroom and “it takes me a lot longer (to get to a track) than it does these other guys with their big jets.”

Carl Edwards and Mark Martin often flew themselves to races as well, and Matt Kenseth is also a pilot.

Elliott can always hitch a ride with his Hendrick Motorsports team if he doesn’t feel like flying somewhere himself, but he’s found being a pilot is good brain exercise for racing.

“That mental process of trying to keep the right things in the right order (is similar),” he said. “You’re multi-tasking a lot. You’re always trying to stay ahead of the game, especially flying and racing — both of those things come hand in hand.

“Just from a mental exercise, to keep your mind in check and do something with your brain that’s not on racing but has the same type of flow is good. I enjoy that.”

This is a big weekend for Elliott, who returns to his home track of Atlanta Motor Speedway to run both the Truck and Cup races (he finished eighth in the Cup race last season).

This is a Beechcraft Baron G58, similar to the one Chase Elliott flies. (Publicity photo from Textron Aviation)

2017 NASCAR Playoff Picks

Here are my picks for the 2017 NASCAR Cup playoffs (alphabetical order):

  • Clint Bowyer
  • Kurt Busch
  • Kyle Busch
  • Austin Dillon
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • Chase Elliott
  • Denny Hamlin
  • Kevin Harvick
  • Jimmie Johnson
  • Kasey Kahne
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Kyle Larson
  • Joey Logano
  • Jamie McMurray
  • Martin Truex Jr.

A few expanded predictions:

— Clint Bowyer will get back to his old competitive self after joining Stewart-Haas Racing. By September, any hiccups SHR has in the transition to Ford will be forgotten.

— Four Toyotas will make it, but rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez will barely miss out because of a few late-race mistakes.

— All four Hendrick drivers will be in the playoff, including Kasey Kahne after his best season in several years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finish the regular season within the top 10 in points.

— Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers will be in and Kyle Larson will win two times in the regular season.

— Austin Dillon will win his first Cup race by late August.

— Overall, Hendrick Motorsports will be the best team in the regular season (with Jimmie Johnson having the most wins), followed by Team Penske. Joe Gibbs Racing will experience a slight drop-off after two great years, just part of the usual cycle in racing.

— I hate leaving Ryan Blaney out, but I’m not a Blaney detractor. I picked him to make it last year, and it’s certainly possible he could have a great year.

Joey Logano will win his first championship in 2017.

The Top Five: Analyzing the Duels at Daytona

Each week, I’ll provide a quick breakdown of the race through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed event. Today: The Duels at Daytona.

1. Well-played, Chase Elliott

Elliott was making me nervous with those aggressive blocks to blunt the runs coming behind him during Duel No. 1. But it all worked out, as he preserved his pole-winning car and won the trophy.

Still, more experienced drivers like Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski seem a bit more polished when protecting a lead — something Elliott seemed to acknowledge after the race.

“I learned a lot from (Keselowski), but I certainly don’t have it perfected quite like he does,” Elliott said.

2. Denny’s good day

Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing announced a contract extension with FedEx on Thursday afternoon. Less than seven hours later, the driver was in victory lane celebrating yet another restrictor-plate success — his sixth since 2014, if you count the Clash and Duels in addition to regular-season Daytona and Talladega races.

Hamlin played it perfectly at the end, blowing past Dale Earnhardt Jr. by using a big push from Austin Dillon to make a run on the high side on the white flag lap.

“Ain’t much you can do about that,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not really defendable.”

At least Earnhardt gave his fans a show and eliminated any questions about rust after a long layoff from competitive racing.

3. Over-Joied

Corey LaJoie was a onetime hot prospect whose star seemed to fade out when he couldn’t get money to fund a good ride. But he raced his way in to the Daytona 500 — albeit not the way he likely wanted.

While racing Reed Sorenson, the driver who he needed to beat for a 500 berth, LaJoie hooked Sorenson and caused a wreck. Sorenson careened into the inside wall entering Turn 1 — eerily similar to Kyle Busch’s 2015 Xfinity crash, except there is now pavement on the path Busch traveled and SAFER barrier at the end of it. Sorenson walked away with his life and health, but not a Daytona 500 spot.

Meanwhile, LaJoie said the move wasn’t intentional but didn’t exactly apologize for it.

“I didn’t want to be sipping margaritas on the beach on Sunday,” he said. “I wanted to be out there racing. If that was my mom, I would probably spin her out to make the Daytona 500, too. That’s just frank. I’m sure I’m not going to be on Reed’s Christmas card list this year, but that’s all right.”

4. Oh, Canada!

D.J. Kennington became the first Canadian driver in the Great American Race since Trevor Boys in 1988, nipping Elliott Sadler at the line to earn his way into the field.

Kennington had to beat Sadler or else Sorenson would have made the race based on qualifying time. So on the backstretch, spotter Robby Benton — a part-owner of the car who let the Gaunt Brothers Racing team use his shop — urged the 39-year-old to get in front of Sadler.

Fortunately, Kennington picked the right line and it worked out.

“This is huge for Canada,” Kennington said.

5. What’s the point?

For the first time since 1981, drivers have accumulated points prior to the Daytona 500.

The Duels paid points to the top 10 drivers in each race, and that creates some unusual circumstances heading into Sunday’s race.

An example: Cole Whitt (one point after finishing 10th in the first Duel) has more points entering the 500 than Kyle Busch (zero) and Danica Patrick (four) has more points than Joey Logano (two) and Jimmie Johnson (zero) combined.

AJ Allmendinger would have had seven points, but he failed post-race inspection and lost all of them — as did Martin Truex Jr., who would have had four. They will start in the rear of the field for the Daytona 500, along with Chris Buescher.

Elliott and Hamlin are the co-points leaders after Thursday’s races.