Lessons learned: Elliott finds way to Victory Lane at Dover

Chase Elliott celebrates after winning Sunday’s race at Dover. Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder

DOVER — A year ago, Chase Elliott left the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway doubting himself, feeling like he had left his Hendrick Motorsports team down.

What a difference a year has made for Elliott when it comes to emotional days at Dover.

Last fall, Elliott came up just short of earning his first career victory at Dover after he allowed Kyle Busch to pass him with just two laps remaining on his way to victory, leaving him to wonder if he had what it takes to win at NASCAR’s highest level.

However, this time around, Elliott found redemption as he persevered through a two-lap overtime sprint to the checkered flag and scored a popular victory in the Gander Outdoors 400 at the Monster Mile on Sunday, which actually took 404 laps to complete.

Chase Elliott does a burnout as his crew cheers him on after winning the Monster Energy Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. Special to the Delaware State News/Pete Hinson

Elliott held off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin by three car-lengths to add his name to the list of winners on Dover’s high-banked, one-mile oval in his No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts-sponsored Chevrolet.

“Last fall was such a tough race for me because I said to a bunch of people this is probably the toughest day of my career,” said Elliott, the 22-year-old son of former NASCAR champion and Dover winner Bill Elliott. “Just to be able to come back and kind of put those kinds of things behind you and prove that you belong is very gratifying. I’m just thankful for the opportunity.

“When you have those hard days that certainly makes you learn and gives you no choice but to grow up a little. Just to have a chance to win today was crazy just a year later This was an important race to be able to move on.”

For Hamlin, who was knocked out of the NASCAR playoffs last weekend, it was a chance to enjoy a nice Sunday drive.

Chase Elliott crosses the finish line to beat Denny Hamlin at the Monster Energy Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“We had a pretty uneventful race and just kind of kept our nose clean and did everything we needed to do to get a good finish,” Hamlin said. “It’s really just a great execution day. We didn’t make any mistakes and just chipped away at it.”

Joey Logano, who finished in third place, expected the action to pick up near the end of the race after being so calm through the first two of the three stages.

“It was a crazy finish,” Logano said. “It seemed like a pretty controlled race for most of it, everyone was clicking off a lot of laps. Getting to the end like that you know it’s going to be crazy.”

Erik Jones and Kurt Busch finished the Gander Outdoors 400 in fourth and fifth, while Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Suarez rounded out the top-10 finishers.

Brad Keselowski’s pit crew tries to repair his car after a lap 397 lap crash at the Monster Energy Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Elliott only led the last 11 laps of the race – including the four in overtime – as he was forced to fight back from a penalty on pit road when his crew had an uncontrolled tire between the first and second stages.

The overtime finish was set up by a multi-car accident on lap 397 that was triggered when Aric Almirola lost control of his car coming off the second turn.

He bounced into Brad Keselowski’s car, which sent both drivers into a spin down the backstretch, also collecting Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr.

All the drivers involved in the accident that brought out the red flag race stoppage and set up the OT finish were contenders for the championship.

“We’ve had so many opportunities and been so close and had the car to win and been in position and, I don’t know, I could have been conservative and probably finished third or fourth,” Almirola said. “I hate that (crash) for everybody that was involved, but it kind of killed our day, too.

#78 Martin Truex Jr. leads the pack early in the race. Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder

“I feel like we should be over there in Victory Lane celebrating, but we’re not.”

Throughout most of the race, it appeared to be Kevin Harvick’s day to win.

Just like during Harvick’s triumph at Dover in May, he dominated the first two 120-lap stages of the race, leading 211 of the first 240 laps.

However, he had to make an extra-pit stop after his crew found he had a broken valve stem on a tire with 76 laps remaining which put him a lap down.

“Best I can tell a lug nut knocked it off,” Harvick said, of the valve stem. “I would have rather won.”

Harvick, who led a race-high 290 laps, did rally from 17th place to a sixth-place finish by the race’s end.

Once Harvick was knocked from the top spot it looked as if his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Almirola was the driver to beat as he led the event for 64 laps over the final 100 miles.

The race was crash-free over the first 391 circuits before Clint Bowyer blew a right-front tire and slammed into the outside wall between turns three and four.

Elliott stayed out on the track and inherited the lead and held onto it with an iron grip over the final 11 circuits, including four in OT.

However, Almirola elected to pit for tires after a caution flag flew after Bowyer’s crash, which dropped him all the way back to sixth for the restart and his day was soon soured by his crash on lap 397. He finished 13th.

Alan Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief, said there was no second-guessing his team’s decision to not pit during the late caution periods.

“There’s always a lot of what-ifs and you can get second-guessed about anything, but I think that was our best opportunity to win the race and it was the best opportunity to score the most points we could score,” Gustafson said.

“Even if Denny (Hamlin) would have passed us, which was certainly a possibility, it was still going to give us more points than what we would have had if we’d pitted.”

Once Elliott took the lead there was no way he was giving it back. Not this time. It was his second career victory after he recorded his first win at Watkins Glen in August.

“It’s been a struggle for a couple of years to win a race and they say, ‘Once you get one they all come easier,’ and I was like, ‘Aw, there’s no way that’s true at all,’” Elliott said. “It certainly didn’t come easy today and I’m so glad we could get a win.”

He said he certainly remembers the feeling he had deep inside himself when he was leaving Dover last fall.

“It definitely makes you learn, for sure,” said Elliott. “It makes you appreciate it like today more. If last year it had happened I wouldn’t appreciate it as much as I do today.

“What a day. It definitely makes it sweeter for sure.”

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