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McFarling: Defending Cup champ Elliott looks to chop on

McFarling: Defending Cup champ Elliott looks to chop on

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NASCAR Atlanta Auto Racing (copy)

Chase Elliott enters Sunday's Cup race at Martinsville Speedway 34 points above the playoff cutline.

Want to make Chase Elliott nervous? Don’t put him behind the wheel of his car – not even on a high-stakes day like Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. He’s proven he has a pretty slow heartbeat on the track.

Nope. Instead, sit him down in front of the television and turn on the 2021 World Series.

“Man, it’s stressful,” Elliott said in a phone interview with The Roanoke Times this week. “It’s stressful as a Braves fan.”

The Dawsonville, Georgia native is a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan. He was 3 years old the last time they won the National League pennant in 1999.

So their underdog run back to the Fall Classic has consumed him, even as his own NASCAR playoffs reach their climax.

“I’m a pretty intense watcher,” Elliott said of his baseball fandom. “If the game’s on, I want to be tuned into the game – unless it’s just going really bad, and then you might dismiss it. But I’m watching every pitch. I want to feel out the game.

“I feel like that’s the best way to understand it and understand where the momentum is. So I’d say I’m fairly serious watcher, especially this time of year.”

The racing world will be watching him and his fellow Cup Series competitors just as intently on Sunday, as the field of playoff drivers is slashed from eight to four. Elliott, the defending series champion who’s been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver each of the past three seasons, is in a strong position to advance.

With Kyle Larson already qualified for Phoenix thanks to two victories in this round, Elliott is the best of the rest. He’s 34 points above the cutline, followed by Denny Hamlin (+32), Kyle Busch (+1), Ryan Blaney (-1), Martin Truex Jr. (-3) and Brad Keselowski (-6). Joey Logano (-26) likely needs a win to advance.

Elliott was in a similar spot to Logano at this time last season. He entered the penultimate race 25 points below the cutline and raced his way into the Championship 4 with a victory at Martinsville.

“Obviously, our points position is different,” Elliott said. “But I think any time you start playing defense and quit focusing on trying to win, I think you’re really setting yourself up for failure, in my opinion. I think that’s something you’ve really got to be careful of. So for us, we’re going to continue to fight for wins.”

He came close again in the spring, finishing runner-up to Martin Truex Jr. at Martinsville. That gave him a third straight top-five finish at this track, where he’s finished inside the top 10 in six of his past seven starts.

“I feel like we’ve got a solid baseline,” he said. “I do think there’s room to be better. I think there’s a couple guys that have been just a tick better than us up there.

“It’s an opportunity to get better at a track that has always been important and might always be in this round. We need to recognize that and make sure we’re trying to take advantage of the opportunity to be better.”

Out with a bang?

The clock is ticking on Keselowski’s time with Team Penske. He’s leaving next season for an driver/owner role with Roush Fenway Racing after more than a decade with the team.

The 2012 Cup champion would love nothing more than to fight his way to Phoenix and get another title in his Penske swan song.

“Oh, absolutely,” Keselowski said. “Yeah, I have allowed my head to go into that space a couple times. It’s a dangerous spot to get in, because it distracts from the focus of kind of putting it all together, so I try to shut my brain off of that. But clearly it would mean the world to me to be able to do that for him and do it for our team our last year together.”

He’s got a decent shot to get in on points, given his history at this track. Before losing his power steering and finishing 33rd here in the spring, Keselowski had finished inside the top five in eight of his previous nine starts at Martinsville, including two victories.

“We have control of our destiny if we win the race,” Keselowski said. “Even if we don’t win the race, realistically if we put up a lot of stage points and do all those things, we’ve got a great shot. So I feel pretty good about this weekend.”

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