Richmond Weekend Preview: Rookie wonder Elliott hopes to continue early success at Richmond

Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott

Since 2000, only two drivers have produced five top-10 finishes through the first eight races of their Sunoco Rookie of the Year seasons.

One is six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

The second, current first-year sensation Chase Elliott.

Elliott will try to keep pace with Johnson’s mark when he goes for his sixth top 10-showing of the season in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway (1 p.m. ET on FOX).

“Richmond has been a special place for me,” Elliott said. “We had a good year last year there on the XFINITY side – we were able to win the fall race and we ran the Sprint Cup race there in the spring and that was one of my first couple Cup starts. So that was neat to get there and run at that track in a Cup car. I’m excited to get back. We had a strong run on the XFINITY side and I think we definitely had a lot of work to do on the Cup side from the spring race, but we made a lot of gains. I learned a lot and I can’t wait to get back there.”

Currently 12th on the Chase Grid on the strength of his five top 10s and two top fives, which he logged in his last two races (fifth at Texas and fourth at Bristol), Elliott would qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs if the regular season ended today. The only rookie to ever make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup before was 2016 Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who achieved the feat in 2006.

Elliott, 19, quickly deflects praise of the successful start to his full-time NSCS career.

“The big thing is we just have fast cars,” the 2014 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion said. “For a guy like me who has a lot to learn and still has a long ways to go, that goes a long way. We’ve had some good cars throughout the year and hopefully we can keep that going, build on it and get a little better.”

The race for rookie of the year is far from over, but Elliott has built a 21-point advantage over fellow heralded youngster Ryan Blaney. The No. 24 Chevrolet maintains neither he nor Blaney worries about anything but winning.

“We want to go and compete for wins,” Elliott said. “We’re not racing to go beat each other. We’re here to try to win the race. However that deal plays out, it plays out.”

Jones readies for repeat win, XFINITY Dash 4 Cash bonus

Erik Jones checked off an entire laundry list of accomplishments last Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

FORT WORTH, TX - APRIL 10:  Erik Jones, driver of the #20 GameStop/Mortal Kombat X Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 10, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

FORT WORTH, TX – APRIL 10: Erik Jones, driver of the #20 GameStop/Mortal Kombat X Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 10, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

One, he won the first-ever Heat in a NASCAR XFINITY Series Dash 4 Cash race.

Two, he captured the checkered flag in the Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300, defeating 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch in the process.

Three, he earned the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus as the highest finisher among NASCAR XFINITY Series regulars who were eligible for the Dash 4 Cash.

And four, he clinched the first automatic NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase berth via his victory.

“I guess I gotta take (crew chief Chris) Gabehart to dinner,” said Jones when asked what he would do with the Dash 4 Cash prize money. “That’s going to be a big bill already. I can tell. After that, I’ll probably put it away. I don’t like to buy too many things.”

The No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing driver gets the opportunity to take his crew chief out to dinner for the second straight week after he attempts to visit Victory Lane and earn the Dash 4 Cash bonus again in Saturday’s ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond International Raceway (12:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

In two starts at the .75-mile track, both made last season, Jones finished fourth and fifth. As he noted after his win at Bristol, his Heat race – scheduled to go 35 laps – will help him improve his car so he can race better.

“We made adjustments (following the Heat race), so I think we definitely learned something,” Jones said. “We learned a little bit about the track widening out to where we were going to be running the Main.”

He added, “I liked (the Heat race). It was something different, something unique and it gave us a chance to work on our stuff before the race, which I thought was pretty helpful.”

Despite owning the only NXS Chase berth at the moment, Jones doesn’t plan on changing his approach.

“I think in a way we’re relaxed more after this,” the NASCAR Next alum said. “Not that we were worried about making the Chase, but it’s definitely nice to have that feeling of comfort for sure. I don’t think we’re going to change much. We’re still going to run for wins every week and I still think we were pretty aggressive weeks prior going for the win in general.”

Gabehart echoed the No. 20 team would not let up.

“This sport’s about winning,” he said. “No one shows up to run second or third. Nothing really changes that, especially with competitors as fierce as Erik and I. But to get the first one behind us for the year and know that we can surely focus on the last seven races and build on this momentum is something that’s going to prove valuable for our race team.”

Race Weekend Preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Race: Toyota Owners 400

Place: Richmond International Raceway

Date and Time: Sunday, April 24 at 1 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 300 miles (400 laps)

What to Watch For: Richmond International Raceway could have its ninth different winner in as many races – the second-longest active streak of any NSCS track (Darlington’s 10-race streak is the longest). … Carl Edwards attempts to win his second consecutive race and third straight Coors Light Pole Award. … Denny Hamlin – the all-time winningest driver from Virginia with 27 victories – tries to capture his third career Richmond checkered flag. … Kurt Busch looks to defend his 2015 spring Richmond win. … Dale Earnhardt Jr. hopes to improve on his two straight runner-up finishes posted at Bristol and Texas. … Fresh off a career-best sixth-place finish for both he and BK Racing, NASCAR Next alum Matt DiBenedetto takes the track at Richmond. BK Racing owner Ron Devine is a Richmond native. … Fresh off his first top-10 finish of the season, Clint Bowyer can produce another strong run at RIR where he has won two races.

NASCAR XFINITY Series

Race: ToyotaCare 250

Place: Richmond International Raceway

Date and Time: Saturday, April 23 at 12:30 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: Two Heat Races – 26.25 miles (35 laps) | Main – 105 miles (140 laps)

What to Watch For: NASCAR XFINITY Series drivers compete in the second of four NASCAR XFINITY Series Dash 4 Cash events. The top finisher in the Main (140 laps for 105 miles) among the four Dash 4 Cash qualifiers determined by the two Heat races (35 laps for 26.25 miles) earns the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus. … Daniel Suárez tries to extend his six-point advantage over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones in the NXS points standings. … JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier attempts to improve on his fifth-place finish at Bristol.

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