SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Chase Elliott is back from his suspension with an urgency to get in the win column and a few regrets about the state of his season so far.
Elliott looked grateful to be wearing a firesuit again Saturday when he finished qualifying in 10th place at Sonoma Raceway behind pole sitter Denny Hamlin. After missing last week’s race as punishment for deliberately wrecking Hamlin in Charlotte, Elliott was eager to resume his chase of the first victory in his injury-shortened NASCAR Cup Series season with just 11 races to go.
“Look, life happens, right?” Elliott said. “Not everybody is perfect, and mistakes are going to be made. You’re going to have tough times. That’s just part of it. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss the amount of races I’ve missed this year. I feel like I’ve missed about half of them, so I don’t want that. That’s not me doing my end of my job. … I don’t love it. I’m not proud of it by any means, but we’re in the position that we’re in, and I can’t change the past.”
Elliott already missed six races this season while recovering from a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding crash. He’s only 27th in the Cup standings heading into Sonoma, and if he can’t win one of the 11 remaining races, he’ll have to get up to 16th to qualify for the playoffs.
“It’s never fun to sit at home while the race is going on and your job is happening and you’re not a part of it,” Elliott said.
Elliott confirmed he spoke to Hamlin about their dust-up at the track outside St. Louis, although neither driver would say much about their conversation. Elliott was annoyed after a race in which the two drivers made contact multiple times, and he eventually turned left deliberately into Hamlin to cause a wreck.
“I certainly respect the penalty,” Elliott said. “I get it. When you get told that decision, you just put your head down and start thinking about the things you can control, because you certainly can’t go back and change the past, right? I feel like the objective is pretty straightforward for us.”
At least the Cup Series’ most popular driver excels on road courses like Sonoma Raceway, where he has four career top-10 finishes. Elliott has the skills to take on other road warriors like Northern California-born Tyler Reddick — who qualified in second behind Hamlin on Saturday — and defending champion Daniel Suárez on Sunday in the series’ annual trip to this challenging track in wine country.
Reddick has won three of the last five road course races on the Cup schedule, emerging as the best road racer in the Next Gen car. But he’s hardly the only driver who enjoys the chance to make right turns for a change.
“I look forward to road courses just because it’s different,” said Kyle Larson, the 2021 Sonoma champion and a Sacramento-area native. “It’s fun and it’s something I feel like I’m good at.”
“I feel like our chances are just as good as last year or even better,” Suárez said. “My team has just gotten smarter and stronger, and whenever we’re on a road course, I know we’re going to be a contender.”
Grant Enfinger is making his Cup debut as the replacement driver for Noah Gragson, who is sitting out with symptoms of an apparent concussion. The 38-year-old Enfinger is a nine-time winner in the Truck Series who ran one Xfinity Series race in 2021. He attempted to run one Cup Series race for Sinica Motorsports in 2011 but failed to qualify.
“Noah has been trying to walk me through this for the last couple of days,” Enfinger said of his new ride. “Everything is a lot different than I’m used to in my truck, but I’m comfortable with that. I’m just trying to concentrate on my tires and not do anything incredibly dumb. I’m getting more and more comfortable.”
Enfinger had planned a quiet weekend at home with his wife and son before getting the call for Sonoma.
“It’s obviously an overwhelming thing,” he said. “But Noah told me a few times, my old lady told me a few times, just try to enjoy it.”
PULL A PART
Early Saturday, NASCAR showed off the counterfeit part found on Chase Briscoe’s Stewart-Haas Racing Ford last month, leading to one of the biggest penalties in Cup Series history. The fraudulent air duct under the engine panel led to a $250,000 fine and a six-race suspension for crew chief Johnny Klausmeier, a 100-point owner and driver penalty, and a loss of 25 playoff points.
The whole caper made Kyle Busch laugh.
“I wish we had a ‘What an Idiot’ award,” Busch said. “Even if you can’t find that part, you can call one of the other race teams and say: ‘Hey, you guys got this? Can we buy it from you?’ That blows my mind. I don’t get it. For as little as that (part) probably meant, that was a huge fine to the pocketbook and points book.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Larson and Reddick are the 9/2 co-favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, with Elliott right behind them at 11/2. Larson is the Cup Series favorite for the second straight week overall. Busch is going off at 9/1.
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