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Cup champ Chase Elliott ready for the big moments in playoff run

From Michael McDowell's improbable Daytona 500 victory to Kyle Larson's historic title, relive all the highlights from a wild regular season in the NASCAR Cup Series as the playoffs get set to start at Darlington.

“To be real honest with you, I don’t really feel any different than I did going in last year.”

Such was reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott’s response to a question this week about whether having a series title made him feel more or less pressure.

At first glance, it seems like standard professional athlete boilerplate. But maybe we should believe him.

Behind the wheel, Elliott’s regular season in 2021 was remarkably similar in many metrics to his regular season in 2020.

In last year’s regular season, Elliott posted two wins, 10 top-five finishes and 15 top-10 finishes. He entered the playoffs as the fifth seed with 20 playoff points.

This year, Elliott’s posted two wins, 11 top fiives and 16 top 10s. He again enters the playoffs as the fifth seed, but with 21 playoff points.

But in becoming and being a champion, Elliott acknowledges a major difference: He’s learned to enjoy the big moments more.

“If you don’t enjoy them, you’re never going to thrive in them,” he said. “A big moment typically means it means something to you and it typically means there’s opportunity for something big at the end of it.

“You have to like it. I mean, that’s to me the biggest piece of the whole puzzle. I don’t think that message will ever change whether you have zero championships, or you have 15.

“I feel like that’s the single most important piece of how this playoff format works. It promotes winning, and winning in big situations.”

The first of those situations comes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN), where the Southern 500 kicks off the opening Round of 16.

In last year’s race, Elliott was leading with 15 laps to go when Martin Truex Jr. looked to pass him for the lead. Instead, the two made contact and both went into the wall. The incident ruined both of their chances to win, as Kevin Harvick went on to take the playoff opener.

Elliott would bounce back with a fifth-place finish the next week at Richmond. It was the first of seven finishes of seventh or better (including three wins) he posted on his way to claiming the championship in Phoenix.

Now that the opportunity to defend his title is here, both he and crew chief Alan Gustafson are eager to get started.

“We’re ready to go, we’re ready to race,” Gustafson said during a Friday media teleconference. “This is our favorite time of year and this is when you have to make it happen. I think we’re in a good position to do that. I’m excited to get going and execute.

“If we do that, we certainly all feel like it’s under our control. ... I think we’ve got a great opportunity to win races and be there at Phoenix.”

The biggest challenge to Elliott could be within his own Hendrick Motorsports team. Elliott, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron combined to win 11 of 26 regular season races.

But it was Larson who’s stood out. In addition to a series-high five wins and a regular season title in the Cup Series, his continued success outside NASCAR has sparked talk that his 2021 season may be one of the greatest in recent memory by an American driver.

However, Elliott embraces the prospect of dueling Larson or another Hendrick driver for the title.

That would fit the bill for a big moment, after all.

“If you’re at a solid organization, there’s a good chance you’re going to be racing against your teammates for big moments (and) big opportunities,” he said.

“Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing. It means we’re at a great organization and you have a chance to win and have won some races.”