HAMPTON, Ga. – Chase Elliott says he can't rely on repeating last summer's success, starting with his home track at Atlanta Motor Speedway, as his path to NASCAR's playoffs.
Elliott, the 2020 Cup Series champion, has endured too much adversity in 2023 to assume he'll extend his streak of seven consecutive appearances in the playoffs. He had more reason for self-doubt Saturday, when he qualified only 23rd. Aric Almirola won the pole to lead another strong Atlanta qualifying day for Ford.
Elliott enters the Atlanta race Sunday night only 24th in the Cup Series standings. He won last summer's Atlanta race but is still looking for his first win this season.
He placed third in last week's street race in Chicago for his third consecutive top-five finish. It's possible Elliott could earn his spot in the playoffs by boosting his points with more competitive finishes, but taking his first win of the season would end the drama.
Elliott is not placing full blame for his points dilemma on the missed races. He says his Hendrick Motorsports team has struggled to find a winning formula it lost after wins in Nashville, Atlanta and Pocono in last summer's string of five straight top-two finishes.
“I think a lot changed really, last fall when we started running not as good there,” Elliott said Thursday. “I think, personally, the setups and just the direction that the garage area went in was a pretty large departure from what we had success with through the early stages of the season and through those summer months."
Elliott mentioned "changes with the tire and all kinds of little things that I think added up.”
The changes were not well-received. Elliott said “we as a group and me personally as a driver” lost momentum and were “not doing very well with that. And I think some of those same struggles have have rolled over into this season, too.”
Elliott said he is encouraged his team is “trending in a good direction” and has “made a little progress over the last month or so.”
FORD RULES QUALIFYING — AGAIN
After Ford claimed the top eight qualifiers in Atlanta's first 2023 race in March, including pole winner and eventual race winner Joey Logano, Almirola won the pole Saturday to lead another dominant day for Ford. Ryan Blaney will start beside Almirola in another Ford.
Two more Fords, Chase Briscoe and Logano, will start on the second row.
Overall, Ford claimed eight of the top 10 times in the first round of qualifying. The only exceptions were Ty Gibbs, who will start seventh in a Toyota, and Kyle Larson, whose Chevrolet will start eighth.
FAVORITES TO WIN
Elliott and Busch are 11/1 favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Brad Keselowski, Larson, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin are next at 12/1.
With Elliott still recovering from his broken leg, Logano passed Keselowski on the final lap to win Atlanta's spring race on March 19. Logano hasn't won again but said Saturday “It’s a lot more comfortable when you have a win and you know you’re in the playoffs.”
Atlanta Motor Speedway has its first weekend of night racing since 2014. Sunday night’s NASCAR Cup Series will be just the seventh in Atlanta’s 63-year history. The only two active drivers with Atlanta wins in night races are Hamlin (2012) and Kyle Busch (2013).
The move creates a break from the heat for drivers and fans.
“I think the fans should be just as relieved as the drivers are,” Logano said. “I mean, it’s hot to be sitting up there in the grandstands in the middle of the summer with the sun baking on them. That’s hard. I’m not going to do that. This is much better.”
MORE PIT ROAD ADJUSTMENTS
Earlier this year, the the pit road entry was moved to the start of Turn 3 from the previous entry point at Turn 4, making the longer pit road much about half the length of the 1.54-mile track. For this race, the pit road speed limit has been raised to 90 mph under green between Turns 3 and 4 while remaining at 45 mph under yellow.