FORT WORTH, Texas – Is Chase Elliott back?

To answer that, maybe the first thing to determine is … was he ever gone before winning Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway?

Well, consider this:

–He had not won in his last 42 starts, which followed a stretch of 18 victories in 154 starts. During that stretch, his Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson had combined for 15 wins.

–He had not posted a top-5 on a 1.5-mile track since the introduction of the Next Gen car in 2022.

–Despite being sixth in points entering Texas, he had led more than 10 laps in two of the first eight races and more than 15 laps in just one.

–He failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2023, a year when he missed six races because of a broken leg in a snowboarding accident and an additional race because of suspension.

That would indicate if he wasn’t “gone,” he was at least far off.

Chase Elliott on what the win can mean for his team beyond the playoff points and a spot in the playoff

But then other factors would show otherwise:

–He entered the race Sunday ranked fourth among all drivers this year in average running position.

–Before Texas, where he qualified 24th, he had made the final round (top-10) in qualifying in six of the first eight races.

–He entered Texas coming off top-5 finishes at Richmond (fifth) and Martinsville (third). He entered Texas sixth in the standings and moved up two spots to fourth.

So, whether looking at it as Elliott is finally back or that he’s been on the road back for the last few months and just didn’t have a win, it might just depend on one’s perspective.

Elliott has seen progression during the first couple of months of the 2024 season.

“Just our performance over the last month or maybe two has done more than anything [for the team],” Elliott said. “Obviously, these races are hard to win. They seem like they get harder, at least for me.

“They continuously get harder over time.”

Chase Elliott on bringing momentum to Texas

The 28-year-old driver didn’t just win a race Sunday, he won a race where he had to battle some of the top drivers in the sport for the win, including going side-by-side with Denny Hamlin, who spun out while battling Elliott in the final laps.

In some ways, it served notice that Elliott is back as a championship contender.

“They’ve slowly but surely gotten better as the season has gone on,” Hamlin said. “It seems like there’s a couple of organizations dominating right now, and he’s part of one of them.

“This is certainly what he’s been capable of for a long time. He’s certainly a threat for sure because he’s done it before.”

Those two organizations are Joe Gibbs Racing (which Hamlin drives for) and Hendrick, which have combined to win eight of the nine Cup races this year.

Is Chase Elliott back after snapping a 42-race winless streak at Texas?

“We don’t as a company think Chase Elliott has ever been gone,” said Hendrick Motorsports General Manager Jeff Andrews said. “We had some things to work on with the team, the support we were giving them.

“He and Alan spent a lot of time this winter on rebuilding that team, putting the right folks in that team, people that believed as much in that team as Alan and Chase did. I think when you get all the folks pulling together and rowing the boat in one direction, you start to see the results like we’ve had so far with that team in 2024.”

The right folks were primarily ones who have stuck with Elliott through the rough times.

“When you have a couple bad years, a period of time that things aren’t going well, it is so easy to jump ship and to start bailing out on one another,” Elliott said.

“I think that the win’s great — all that stuff is fantastic — but I’m truthfully most proud of the journey and the group of people that we have climbed back up together with. We’ve made each other better. They push me to be a better driver and a better person.”

That group is led by Alan Gustafson, a veteran crew chief who won races with Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.

“Fourth in points, one win, three top-5s, average run position before we started was fourth — what am I missing?” Gustafson said in making the case that Elliott has been consistently strong.

“What is he not doing that he should be doing? I think he’s pretty good.”

Gustafson said the winless streak didn’t weigh on him. Like most crew chiefs, he focused on the next race, not the previous one, except where they needed to get better.

“I don’t want to downplay it, but I’m not like, ‘Oh, geez, we’re on a losing streak,'” Gustafson said. “That never comes into my mind. I never think about that at all. There’s no clock on my desk that says it’s been 10,225 days, a billion hours since you last won.

“I just focus on doing the best I can, performing, getting the team ready to go. Everybody does the same thing. I think it’s more of a really tangible thing to you [in the media] than it is to me, to be honest.”

What has been tangible is Elliott’s admission that the switch to NASCAR’s Next Gen car was not the easiest transition for him.

“It’s always been a fine line of hitting it right, and I think that as you transition to new cars — which mind you this is the first time I’ve gone through a transition like that — so breaking habits and kind of reteaching yourself in some areas to ultimately extract performance is a hard thing to do when you’ve grown to do things a certain way,” Elliott said prior to the start of the season.

[RELATED: Chase Elliott on 2024 rebound: ‘I have not been performing as I expect of myself’]

Elliott knows that Larson might have had the fastest car of anyone Sunday, but a wheel coming off his car ruined his chances for a win.

But even with a frustrating qualifying result, Elliott also knows he still had confidence that he could vie for the win because his car felt better in practice than it had in recent years.

Kyle Larson explains what he felt when the wheel came off

“Relative to the guys that have won a lot of these things over the last year or so, I felt like we’ve been closer to them,” Elliott said. “I still think we have a lot of work to do, for sure. A lot of things went our way today — I’m not naïve to that, for sure as well.

“You have to be in the mix. You’ve got to be up front to even have things go your way. We were close enough to do that. We still want to be better.”

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including over 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass.

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