Chase Elliott and his Aaron’s/HendrickCars.com crew took a page from the same playbook that propelled Regan Smith to victory at Darlington and Matt kenseth at Dover and used it to win the Carolina 200 presented by Black’s Tire and Auto Service at Rockingham Speedway on Saturday.
It was Elliott’s first win the USAR Pro Cup Series and the second of his career at Rockingham Speedway, the track where his father Bill Elliott made his first Sprint Cup start and where he got the most recent of his 44 Cup victories.
Elliott and his crew are focusing on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series this season, but driver and crew decided two weeks before the race that some seat time in a similar car would be worth the effort.
After a productive day of practice on Thursday, Elliott qualified sixth for Saturday’s 150-mile run.
At the start of the race Elliott quickly moved from his sixth starting position into third but gave up 29 positions by making a pit stop during the first caution period, at lap 12, so a loose hood pin could be secured.
Restarting 31st, Elliott began his march forward, with encouragement and assistance from his dad, who was atop the spotter’s stand.
“Just be cautious, and I will help you get back up through the field,” Bill Elliott told his son.
By lap 58 Elliott had moved into the sixth position, passing A.J. Frank.
During a caution at lap 64, Elliott pitted for fuel only while several other drivers pitted for fresh tires.
Elliott lost two positions during the next green-flag run to Tanner Barryhill and Matt Loftin, both of whom had fresh tires.
Undaunted, Elliott pressed on, passing other drivers ahead that also took only fuel, such as Frank and Jeff Agnew, and regaining the sixth position.
On lap 87 Elliott passed Caleb Holeman for the fifth position, just as the caution flag flew for a crash by Brain Keselowski, who made the field for this years’ Daytona 500.
Elliott pitted for tires and lined up 10th for the restart.
By lap 106 Elliott had moved into the fifth position behind leaders K.P. Morgan, Barryhill, Brad Rogers and Brian Silas. Elliott took fourth from Silas on lap 111 and third from Barryhill four laps later.
After the fifth and final caution flag flew there were 18 green laps remaining, the race began to play out just like the past two Sprint Cup races.
The first- and second-place drivers, Morgan and Rogers, pitted for fresh tires. Elliott stayed out on old tires and held off a hard-charging Brad Rogers to get the win, with Morgan taking third.
But Elliott told reporters in his winner’s interview that his team’s tire decision wasn’t as tough as the ones the Cup teams faced; he wouldn’t have benefitted by pitting for tires.
“We needed to use our tires in practice on Friday getting a solid set-up and were out of tires, so pitting during the caution period wasn’t an option for us,” Elliott said. “I still felt pretty confident we could hold them off.”
Like Carl Edwards at both Darlington and Dover, Rogers was surprised to be beaten by a driver on old tires.
“I thought the tires were going to be a little bit bigger issue,” Rogers said. “[Elliott] was awful fast there for not coming to get tires with me a J.P. right there at the end.”
Rogers also had praise for his young opponent.
“He [Elliott] held a pretty wheel,” Rogers said. “He didn’t screw up when I was able to get to him in that lapped traffic. I had a run on him on the front straightaway, but Chase is a good dude and he’s got a bright future ahead of him.
“I’m sure we’ll be racing again in the future, hopefully.”