DOVER, Del. — Kevin Harvick left the race track disappointed on Sunday, as a bit of bad luck doomed his dominant day. Aric Almirola left frustrated, mad and angry after a caution wiped out his sizable lead and he couldn’t capitalize while trying to rally late in the race.
Elliott enjoyed the rare feeling of redemption Sunday, as crew chief Alan Gustafson left him out on old tires, and he held on to the lead for two restarts over the final eight laps to capture the Gander Outdoors 400.
“Last fall was such a tough race for me, and as I’ve said to a bunch of people, that was probably the toughest day of my career,” Elliott said. “And just to be able to come back and kind of put those things behind you and prove that you belong is very gratifying.”
The 22-year-old Elliott earned his first career victory just eight races ago at Watkins Glen, capturing a somewhat unexpected road-course win. The triumph Sunday was also a little unexpected, as he barely sniffed the leaders and then had an uncontrolled tire penalty after the first stage that forced him to rally throughout the event.
But he found himself going from third to the lead by staying out when the leaders pitted, and this time he held everyone off on old tires. It wasn’t a comparable situation to how he lost the race a year ago, but mentally, it showed his progress as far as how to handle the stress and the pressure of those breathing down his rear bumper.
“Mentally, having a little more confidence in it. I think that last year you get in those situations, and … I just have some more confidence going into that,” Elliott said. “The ending was nothing like the race was last year, but it was certainly a tough ending with adversity, restarting on old tires and having those guys coming on fresh tires behind you.
“All that stuff adds up, and it certainly wasn’t the same complexion as the race a year ago. … Just to have some more confidence going into those restarts and things is great, and the more you’re in those positions, the better you feel.”
There was another element in which Elliott grew over the past year. He had Denny Hamlin beside him on the final green-white-checkered restart.
Elliott and Hamlin had an infamous dustup late in the fall 2017 race at Martinsville, where Hamlin ended up spinning Elliott as they battled for the lead. Elliott drove into Hamlin after the race, a seminal moment for Elliott, showing that he wouldn’t back down to the veterans. Elliott wrecked Hamlin a couple of weeks later at Phoenix.
“I feel like we’ve raced with each other a lot since last fall, but I haven’t really had an issue with him since then,” Elliott said. “I can’t say that I singled him out there.”
Elliott’s boss, Rick Hendrick, thought about that Martinsville finish. If Elliott could have won, he would have advanced to the final round of the playoffs.
Hendrick sees where Elliott has come and maybe feels a bit of his own redemption in hiring Elliott at a young age and seeing him win races in his third full season as a Cup driver.
“What I saw him do at Watkins Glen was unbelievable against some of the best road racers,” Hendrick said. “Seeing him develop at some of those tracks have been unbelievable. … We were a lap away from him going to Homestead last year when he got spun.
“I think we were behind this year. We’ve caught up a little bit, and he’s just got an awesome amount of talent.”
But talent needs to be nurtured. Gustafson, often the lightning rod on social media for Elliott’s struggles to win races, is the one who has been doing that.
“All we try to do is look at it with really clear vision, without bias, and just be accountable for our actions and say, ‘Hey, this is the reality of what happened, this is why it happened, and this is potentially what we could have done to improve,'” Gustafson said.
“Where that benefits you is when you get back in that situation, then you’ve got a little bit in your playbook. … You’re just quicker and more apt to do it, and you’re quicker and more apt to adjust, and you’re quicker and more apt to not be complacent.”
Now the first driver to have clinched a spot in the third (semifinal) round of the playoffs, Elliott finds himself in a similar position when it comes to vying for a championship to where he was a year ago, despite not having as stout a season.
“I thought we made a great run at it last year,” Elliott said.
“Personally, I felt like we went way further than anybody expected us to, a couple laps away from going to Homestead. No reason why we can’t do that this year and give those guys a run.”