MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Chase Elliott makes his return to racing this weekend at Martinsville Speedway with one thing on his mind: Winning.
And that approach won’t change the rest of the season.
Elliott has missed the last six Cup Series races after breaking his leg during a freak snowboarding accident in Colorado, leaving him so far behind in the points race that his only realistic shot of making the NASCAR playoffs is winning a race.
“We are in a position where we are going to have to win, or at least that is how I have been looking at it,” Elliott said. “You miss a few weeks and you’re pretty much going to have to win.”
He didn’t help himself much on Saturday, as he will start 24th and running the 10th fastest practice lap. But he said after qualifying, “I feel fine in the car.”
Elliott has been granted a waiver allowing him to compete for the Cup championship even though his injury did not occur on the track.
Elliott said while the setup of his No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro and how he drives won’t change, the overall strategy of how his team approaches Sunday’s 400-lap race will be different.
“Obviously, we don’t need to go for points,” Elliott said. “So anytime you have decisions to make, the decision is going to be very easy — you play the long game and try to win the event.”
Elliott doesn’t anticipate any modifications to the inside of the racecar on Sunday to accommodate his surgically-repaired leg. For the most part, it should be racing as usual.
“The leg is kind of tightly packed in there between the seat, the leg board and the knee-knocker. All of those have your left leg pretty tight,” said Elliott, who won the 2020 fall race at Martinsville.
Elliott is NASCAR’s most popular driver for five years running, and several drivers said Saturday before practice they’re thrilled to have him back.
“Chase, for us, he’s our biggest star, and he’s the guy that needs to be here every week for it all to make sense,” said Kevin Harvick.
The last time NASCAR made a pit stop at Martinsville in October, Ross Chastain pulled off an impressive video game move when he intentionally rode the outside wall in turns three and four on the final lap slingshotting his No. 1 Chevrolet past Denny Hamlin at the finish line to secure a spot in NASCAR’s “final four.”
It was a bold move that quickly became known as “Hail Melon,” garnering more than 225 million views and 1.2 billion impressions.
While NASCAR has since banned the wall-racing move, the eighth-generation watermelon farmer was invited to return to the track to help remove the “Martinsv” section of the wall that will be preserved as part of history.
“That was a life-changing moment for myself and my team,” Chastain said Saturday. “We will continue to feel the benefits of that for years to come.”
BYRON’S MEMORY LANE
William Byron returns to the paper-clip-shaped 0.526-mile oval track where he watched his first NASCAR race as a youngster and fell in love with the sport.
It’s also the same racetrack where he won last spring, dedicating the victory to his mother, who had endured stroke-like symptoms during the 2021 race at Martinsville and had to be transported back to Charlotte, North Carolina.
She was treated for a brain tumor and remains in remission.
“It’s coming up on two years now. It’s pretty amazing that she’s doing well and all that stuff is kind of in the past,” said Byron, the only Cup driver with multiple wins this season. “It’s good to hopefully have her there this weekend and think about the positive memory that we made last year.”
This will be the final race for Chase Briscoe before undergoing surgery to repair his broken left middle finger.
Briscoe will wear a split this week at Martinsville but indicated on social media he’ll need surgery to have pins and rods inserted. He doesn’t expect to miss any races, although it’s unclear how the injury will impact his driving.
“Still broken and hurting,” Briscoe tweeted.
He also posted an X-ray of his finger, which clearly showed a fracture.
RING THAT BELL
Cup series points leader Christopher Bell is coming off a huge win last week at Bristol, his fifth career victory in 116 career starts. That makes him the second fastest to reach five wins among active drivers behind only Brad Keselowski, who had eight wins in his first 116 races.
“It’s shocking to me,” said Bell, who won the fall race last year at Martinsville. “I obviously idolized a lot of the greats in the sport and to see my name up there with them is really special. . … But you’re only as good as your last race, so we can’t go to Martinsville and drop the ball.”
Zane Smith will drive the No. 51 Ford this weekend for Rick Ware Racing after Cody Ware was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR on Monday after being charged with assault on a female and assault by strangulation inflicting serious injury.
This will be Smith’s fifth career Cup start. He has nine career wins, including two this season, in the Truck Series. It’s unclear if he will continue to drive the No. 51 beyond this week.
Last week, Matt Crafton filled in for Ware at Bristol.
ODDS AND ENDS
Byron is the odds-on favorite to repeat at Martinsville in the spring race at 6-1, followed by Kyle Larson (11-2) and Bell (7-1), according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
AP Sports Writer Daniel Gelston contributed to this report.
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