MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Chase Elliott returns to racing this weekend at Martinsville Speedway with only one thing on his mind: to win.
And that approach won’t change for the rest of the season.
Elliott has missed the last six races of the Cup Series after breaking his leg in a freak snowboarding accident in Colorado, leaving him so far behind in the points race that his only realistic chance of making the NASCAR playoffs is to win a race.
“We’re in a position where we have to win, or at least that’s how I saw it,” Elliott said. “You miss a couple of weeks and pretty much have to win.”
Elliott was granted a dispensation allowing him to compete for the Cup Championship, although his injury did not occur at the track.
Elliott said while the setup of his No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro and his driving style will not change, the overall strategy for how his team approaches Sunday’s 400-lap race will be different.
“We see guys shortening stages to try and get the win or whatever to get points. Obviously we don’t have to go for points,” Elliott said. “So whenever you have decisions to make, the decision will be very simple – you play the long game and try to win the event.”
Elliott doesn’t expect any modifications inside the race car to accommodate his surgically repaired leg. For the most part, there should be racing as usual.
“The leg is packed pretty tight there between the seat, the leg board and the knee knocker. All of them have a pretty tight left side,” said Elliott, who won the Fall 2020 race in Martinsville. “I feel like things are already the way I want them to be.”
When NASCAR last pitted in Martinsville in October, Ross Chastain pulled off an impressive video game move when he intentionally went over the perimeter wall on turns three and four on the final lap, handing his #1 Chevrolet to Denny Hamlin hurled past 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 has been invited to return to the track to help remove the “Martinsv” section of the wall, which will remain as part of the story.
“It was cool to take the afternoon and the moment to physically take out and preserve this piece of the wall,” Chastain said. “It’s amazing to think how many great drivers have raced at Martinsville in the past and how many great races have taken place at the track. I’m proud to be a part of something special.”
BYRON’S MEMORY TRAIL
William Byron returns to the .526-mile oval track in the form of a paper clip where he watched his first NASCAR race as a youngster and fell in love with the sport.
It’s also the same track he won at last spring and dedicated the win to his mother, who suffered stroke-like symptoms during the 2021 race in Martinsville and had to be transported back to Charlotte, North Carolina.
She was treated for a brain tumor and is in remission.
“It’s been two years now. It’s quite amazing that she’s doing well and all of those things are kind of a thing of the past,” said Byron, the only Cup driver with multiple wins this season. “It’s good to have her here hopefully for the weekend and think of the positive memory we made last year.”
This will be the last race for Chase Briscoe before he undergoes surgery to repair his broken left middle finger.
Briscoe will wear a split in Martinsville this week but revealed on social media that he will need surgery to insert pins and bars. He doesn’t expect to miss races, although it’s unclear how the injury will affect his driving.
“Still broken and hurting,” Briscoe tweeted.
He also posted an X-ray of his finger, which clearly showed a fracture.
RING THE BELL
Cup Series points leader Christopher Bell clinched a big win in Bristol last week, his fifth career win in 116 career starts. This makes him the second fastest active driver with five wins behind only Brad Keselowski, who has eight wins in his first 116 races.
“It’s shocking to me,” said Bell, who won last year’s fall race in Martinsville. “I’ve obviously idolized a lot of the sport’s greats and to see my name up there with them is very 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 for Rick Ware Racing this weekend after Cody Ware was suspended indefinitely from NASCAR on Monday after being charged with assaulting a woman and assault by strangulation, leaving him with serious injuries.
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 drive the No. 51 beyond this week.
Matt Crafton filled in for Ware in Bristol last week.
AP Sports Writer Daniel Gelston contributed to this report.
AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports