KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Chase Elliott first had to figure out how to win at NASCAR's top level. Now that he's got that handled, the son of 1988 Cup Series champion Bill Elliott is chasing a title of his own.
Elliott won at Kansas Speedway on Sunday for his second victory in three races, cementing himself as a championship threat late in a season in which mighty Hendrick Motorsports has lagged. He needed 98 career starts and perhaps a dozen close calls before he finally secured his first Cup Series victory.
The breakthrough win 11 events ago at Watkins Glen International sparked Elliott's performance in NASCAR's playoffs, with the second round bookended by a pair of victories for the 22-year-old star. Elliott opened the round with a win at Dover International Speedway and closed it with the Sunflower State surprise after starting 13th and being frustrated by not making the final round of qualifying Friday.
"We're going to keep the hammer down," Elliott said. "I feel like we are among those guys that you have to beat, and I think that is all you can ask for."
Elliott is the only Hendrick driver and the single Chevrolet representative among the eight drivers still eligible for the championship. Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time champion, was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and teammate Alex Bowman was among the four drivers knocked out Sunday.
Also eliminated: Team Penske's Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski, both winners in the first round of the playoffs, and Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson.
Larson needed to win to make it into the third round and was frantically chasing Elliott in the closing laps but settled for third. He was docked 10 points by NASCAR last week for an infraction at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 13, and when his team lost two appeals, he was in a must-win situation. He had to start at the back of the field after crashing his primary car in practice Friday.
"I'm actually glad that nothing stupid took us out of the playoffs this year — we had that battery come out at Dover a couple years ago, blew up an engine here last year," Larson said. "I would have liked to have made it into the next round, but I'm glad (elimination) wasn't anything other than just us not performing where we needed to be that kept us out of the next round."
Joining Elliott in advancing are Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. The next three races are at Martinsville Speedway, Texas Speedway and ISM Raceway, and the field will be trimmed to four drivers for the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Stewart-Haas Racing has all four of its drivers (Almirola, Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Harvic) still in contention, and Ford has five of the slots, with the SHR drivers joined by Team Penske's Logano. Toyota has two entrants in Kyle Busch and 2017 series champion Truex.
NASCAR's so-called "Big Three" of Kyle Busch, Harvick and Truex remain in the hunt, with each chasing the second title of his career. Harvick, winner of the second stage Sunday, and Kyle Busch, the runner-up to Elliott, have looked like championship contenders all season. Truex has been hot in spurts but was fifth at Kansas, where he swept both races last season.
"This stuff is hard, man," Truex said. "It shows how difficult it is, you know, to win both races here last year and run second in the spring and then come back trying to be better and struggle all day."
Keselowski, the 2012 season champion, briefly flirted with another title run by reeling off three consecutive victories in recent weeks, but he ran out of gas last week when the race at Talladega went into overtime, and it crushed his momentum. He was sixth Sunday.
"We needed something to step up, but it just wasn't there," Keselowski said. "I am proud of what we did down the stretch of the year. We won three races but of course the ultimate goal is to win a championship, and we won't have an opportunity to do that this year."
Elliott has now taken over Keselowski's slot as a late challenger to the Big Three.
"This is a huge time of year," Elliott said. "We've got a lot of work to do and a long ways to go."