CLICK: Full race results and Nationwide Series championship standings.
As the saying goes, once might be happenstance and twice coincidence, but a third time means enemy action. And on Saturday night, 18-year-old NASCAR Nationwide Series rookie Chase Elliott put his championship campaign intentions beyond doubt when he claimed this third victory of 2014 on Saturday night as he beat Trevor Bayne to the finish line in the EnjoyIllinois.com 300 at Chicagoland Speedway.
"This is an unbelievable night," said Elliott. "We had an awesome race going."
Amazingly, he had never raced this circuit before, but proved once again just what a phenomenally quick study he is: "I try to make the most of my practice laps. They gave me a good car, that gives me time to learn the track in practice," he explained.
"I did have some questions that I asked, and I definitely think that helped tonight," he added. "So thankful to have a couple great teammates [Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith] and good to have something to lean back on with those guys."
Elliott started the race from third place behind Brian Scott and Ty Dillon. Scott had earlier claimed pole for the fourth time in 160 NASCAR Nationwide Series after his final qualifying lap of 30.370s (177.807mph) bettered that of Dillon by 0.028s on the 1.5-mile speedway. Scott led for the first 20 laps before Elliott took charge, the first of a race-high 85 laps out in front of the race which included a final unbroken run of 23 laps to the chequered flag for the youngster.
"We all, as a team, we completed our task tonight and that was the difference," said Elliott in victory lane. "We were fortunate enough to be in contention on that last pit stop; the guys busted their butts for me and that was the deciding factor."
Having gone for an off-sync race strategy to the rest of the race leaders, Trevor Bayne felt that he'd had the edge over Elliott toward the end but simply ran out of laps to do anything about it: "That's probably the strongest weekend we've had in a while. Had it stayed green for another 15, we might have had it, but that's 15 laps we'll never know about."
Elliott and Bayne finished well clear of the rest of the field, with Kyle Larson coming in third over nine seconds off the race winner.
"I thought we had a real good car," Larson said. "I had some fun, just frustrating coming in third when I thought we had a real good chance to win."
Elliott's JR Motorsports team mate finished in fourth place, despite brushing the wall while passing Scott with 20 laps to go, which took enough of an edge off the #5 car to prevent it making a bid for the lead at the crucial stage. Scott ended the race in sixth place just behind Ty Dillon.
There were just two cautions this week, with a Sam Hornish's blown engine just eight laps into the race accounting for one when it lay down oil on the track, and a debris caution on lap 123 the only other interruption to proceedings.
Victory at Chicagoland puts Chase Elliott back at the top of the Nationwide Series championship standings by seven points over Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler after Smith had an anonymous evening of it mired in the midfield with a loose race car, starting in 15th place and finishing in 16th. In the owners' championship, the #54 Joe Gibbs Racing car driven by Sam Hornish Jr. remains in front despite its early retirement with engine issues, but its margin over the #22 Penske is now down to just five points.
Despite the fact that this a rare week off for the Sprint Cup Series, few regulars decided to top up their schedule with an extra Nationwide outing - the only Cup regulars in action on Saturday night were Kahne and Larson. The Camping World Truck Series is also on hiatus this weekend, enabling the most recent winner Erik Jones to pick up an outing in the Joe Gibbs Racing #20 and get a taste for the next rung on the ladder. He finished his first Nationwide race in seventh place just ahead of Chris Buescher, Ryan Blaney and Elliott Sadler.
It was definitely a learning experience for me and everybody involved," said Jones, who drives for Kyle Busch Motorsport in the Truck Series. "I feel like I learned a lot the whole night and really picked up on some things that will help me through the next couple."
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings.