HomeSportsAfter Martinsville return, Chase Elliott's real season is now just beginning

    After Martinsville return, Chase Elliott’s real season is now just beginning

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    MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Hendrick Motorsports had a crutch for Chase Elliott if he wanted to use it after getting out of his car following a 400-lap grind at Martinsville Speedway.

    Elliott, six weeks removed from surgery for a broken tibia suffered March 3 when his knee buckled on a landing while snowboarding, didn’t use the crutch. If the 27-year-old driver could handle slamming on the brakes at least 800 times, he could walk a little bit to talk to media. Maybe he didn’t want to show any weakness.

    “My leg’s stiff,” Elliott said. “My knee’s stiff. But I don’t hurt or anything like that. I’m about where I thought it would be.”

    A race at Martinsville can be grueling — a handful of drivers went to the infield care center for fluids after the race, which was held in what felt like the hottest conditions of the year.

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    Elliott sat by his car for several minutes afterward. But he smiled as he talked to other drivers, many of whom were feeling sapped.

    “I feel pretty good — just about what I expected,” Elliott said. “So that was a good thing. Definitely a tough, tough race probably more because I’ve been sitting on the couch for six weeks, more so than my leg.

    “But we’ll go home and get it tuned back up.”

    The sport’s most popular driver, Elliott’s return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 car was announced late Wednesday afternoon. He had spent part of Tuesday and then Wednesday morning in the Chevrolet simulator before determining he was ready to return after a six-week absence.

    In a couple of days, NASCAR had a commercial ready to highlight Elliott’s return. There were fans at the track who said they only decided to come to the race when they heard he would compete and seek his 19th career Cup victory.

    “You didn’t see me getting a TV commercial when I came back,” quipped Elliott teammate Alex Bowman, who missed five races last year because of a concussion.

    So Sunday was a big day not just for Elliott, but for the NASCAR season as a whole. It signaled another reason for fans to get excited and certainly was a message to the competition that Elliott could be a player when it comes down to the playoffs in the fall.

    Elliott knew his return was a big deal. And his performance Sunday was a big deal, too. Mired in 20th to 25th place for much of the second half of the race, he rallied to finish 10th. 

    A driver not known to get excited about a 10th-place finish, Elliott actually smiled after this one — a sign that he knew that he still had it.

    Elliott’s successful return

    Bob Pockrass explains why Chase Elliot fans should be excited after Martinsville.

    As a former Cup champion, Elliott shouldn’t lack confidence. But any time an athlete suffers an injury, the unknown can play mind tricks until the return.

    “I’m really proud — to get into the top 10 I thought was really nice for how bad we ran today and for being out of the car for over the month was pretty solid for me,” Elliott said. “So I was pretty happy.”

    The performance likely was another boost for a Hendrick organization that won for the fourth time this year just nine races into the season as Kyle Larson captured the victory at Martinsville.

    In some ways, the team had two reasons to celebrate.

    “If you saw him after the race, [that’s] just the fight that’s in Chase Elliott,” said Hendrick Motorsports President Jeff Andrews. “Obviously, that was a tough race on him, a tough race on any driver to come here after being out for multiple weeks.”

    The team’s preparation appeared to be on point. Elliott said the team did not have to change the cockpit area of the car to accommodate him as it already is designed to keep a leg relatively stable.

    “Fortunately my knee is in a pretty nice position in the car with a little bend in it,” Elliott said. “It’s not like you have to have it super straight, so that was good.”

    No pain, no gain

    Chase Elliott details his performance at Martinsville after returning from a leg injury.

    He also indicated that they followed the plan for the weekend as far as treatment.

    “We worked on it last night, just trying to keep my range of motion up and not get too stiff, too tight before the race,” said Elliott, who did 37 laps in practice Saturday.

    “That was all planned. It wasn’t anything that I had to do because I felt a certain way yesterday.”

    The fact that there were no big surprises for Elliott could be considered another accomplishment. While the team initially said it would take Elliott six weeks to recover, it was far from a certainty that Martinsville — six weeks from the accident — would be the place for his return. 

    Cup drivers brake with their left leg, so his repaired left leg — he said he has some screws in his tibia by his knee — would need to handle significant wear and tear during the race.

    “Initially, we talked about that, that this probably wasn’t the best place,” Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon said. “But then talking to more guys, it seems like with the brakes that they have on the cars these days, you don’t really push the brake pedal as hard as you used to.

    “In the simulation, that’s almost more pressure than here.”

    Elliott had remained engaged with the organization throughout his rehab in Colorado, where the snowboarding accident occurred. He took part in team meetings but didn’t go to his home in Georgia until late March.

    “About what I expected”

    Chase Elliott spoke with Regan Smith after he scored a top-10 finish at Martinsville.

    Until he showed up at the shop Tuesday, there was uncertainty among many there on whether he would return at Martinsville. Elliott tries to keep things relatively private — he didn’t even tell Larson that he was coming back.

    “I had texted him that day, just catching up — how you’ve been, how you feeling — and had no clue that he might have been in the shop that day,” Larson said.

    “I was shocked. … I hadn’t heard anything.”

    That’s probably the way Elliott wanted it. He didn’t want too much chatter about the possibility of him coming back, although there were whispers the last couple of weeks that Martinsville was possible.

    Elliott probably wanted to give as little time for the hype of his return to percolate.

    “I don’t think Chase is the kind of guy that really strives for attention,” Gordon said. “It just comes along with the brand he’s built and the popularity he has.

    “He handles it really, really well. But that doesn’t necessarily mean on the inside he’s comfortable with it. There’s a lot of positives out of that, but then you’ve got to focus on doing your job at the same time. He does a good job with that.”

    Gordon certainly was not shocked by his performance.

    “I’m not surprised,” Gordon said. “He’s a quiet guy, but he’s always been a guy that will put up a fight. … That tells you about his mental toughness.”

    Thinking Out Loud

    NASCAR had its first racing experience on ovals with wet weather tires Friday with the truck race at Martinsville. And it was a learning experience for sure.

    The big takeaway was that it was good to get the race in Friday night as the Martinsville small-track layout makes it a logistical challenge to run three races in a weekend. The race was eventually called after 124 laps with Corey Heim declared the winner when more rain fell shortly before midnight.

    The race was delayed nearly two-and-a-half hours because of lightning and rain, and NASCAR used the wet weather tires with the track damp. It ran 27 laps in the damp before throwing the caution so drivers could change to slick tires.

    Drivers seemed to feel they could race on the treaded tires in the damp, albeit a little slower. 

    But it was certainly frustrating to have a race where only 34 of the scheduled 200 laps were run under green on slick tires due to wrecks as well as more rain that caused NASCAR to red-flag the race. For the sake of competition, you would hope there to be more green-flag racing on the slicks as the wet weather tires weren’t designed to make up 40% of the green flag laps of the race — they were designed just so they could get back racing a little earlier than needing to have the track completely dry.

    How NASCAR handles it going forward will still be a challenge. It could be argued that a football game in a snowstorm isn’t the best for the sake of competition and that sports handle inclement weather conditions to get the game played on the day scheduled. NASCAR did that, and so it can look at it as a success. But any evaluation also will need to take into account how fans feel about a race so different than one they would expect.

    In The News

    –Kaulig Racing will have its last appeal to its Phoenix penalties for illegal louvers Tuesday. The appeal will be heard by NASCAR final appeals officer Bill Mullis, the promotor of Langley (Va.) Speedway.

    –NASCAR is naming five drivers every week for five weeks to be part of its 75 Greatest Drivers list as part of its 75th anniversary celebration. It is adding 25 drivers to a list of 50 named during the 50th anniversary. The first five to be announced: Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Mike Stefanik, Randy LaJoie and Kyle Larson.

    –Rick Ware Racing named Zane Smith as its driver for Martinsville to replace Cody Ware, who faces three misdemeanor and one felony charge from a domestic violence incident April 3, according to Iredell County (N.C.) records. RWR has not yet named a driver for this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway as Smith already will be driving for Front Row Motorsports.

    Social Spotlight

    Stat of the Day

    Of the 20 drivers who have won races for Hendrick Motorsports, nine of them have won at Martinsville.

    They Said It

    “I do feel like we are close to what we were a couple of years ago, and we’re winning at tracks I suck at, so that says a lot.” —Kyle Larson following his Martinsville win

    Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

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