Elliott taking fast success in stride, eager for AMS debut
18-year-old Chase Elliott speaks as if he has been racing for years and years. Well, he has. Like many aspiring racers these days, Elliott began in go karts as a kid and raced Pro and Super Late Models pretty much full-time from age 13 to 18. He began in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at age 15 (NASCAR lowered the minimum age his rookie year) in 2011, the year he signed with Hendrick Motorsports. Two years in that series full-time then brought him to a year mixed with ARCA, Camping World Truck Series, and more Late Model starts in 2013, all in preparation for what has been his "Welcome to NASCAR" year - 2014.
Elliott has been impressive in his rookie campaign in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in the JR Motorsports No. 9 NAPA Chevy - to say the least. He's scored 11 top 10s and 7 top 5s in 16 starts and, most importantly, two wins. They came back-to-back in April at Texas Motor Speedway and then Darlington Raceway. Keep in mind that Elliott was only able to run 1.5-mile this season, because he wasn't old enough in years past. Also take into account that Elliott raced his rear end off to pass Kevin Harvick, his teammate, to win Texas and that his Darlington win was at what is considered by many to be the hardest track in NASCAR. Impressive.
He's finished every race on the lead lap except Charlotte, where mechanical problems sent him to the garage for repairs and a 37th-place finish. Take that result away and Elliott is leading points probably. Teammate Regan Smith leads Elliott, who sits 3rd in the standings, by 15 markers.
With such success so fast, one would think that an 18-year-old guy's head would explode. Not Elliott's. While at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in Dawsonville, Georgia, his hometown, helping Atlanta Motor Speedway promote a "Chase Elliott Ticket Package" for the Labor Day weekend Great Clips 300, Elliott spent some time discussing his fast rise to the top and staying grounded.
"I don't necessarily think I've arrived by any means. It's been fun. To have a couple of wins, so far is definitely a plus," Elliott told WSB via phone from the event.
That sounds pretty profound for such a young man, but how does he stay grounded? While he didn't credit his father and NASCAR champion Bill Elliott by name, his attitude toward his ascent through motorsports has obviously been molded by his mellow dad.
"For me, I don't take anything for granted. There's no guarantees of where we're going to be in two hours, much less the race weekend or the whole race. You just have to keep that in mind and stay working hard and stay committed to do better. There's always going to be those that are having good times in the racing world and you want to try hard to compete against them."
"Them" have been the likes of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, and Joey Logano - all multiple-time winners and contenders at the Sprint Cup level, who run and win regularly in the Nationwide Series. Elliott was three when Earnhardt Jr. made his Sprint Cup debut and five when Harvick did. What is racing against the heroes you watched as a kid growing up like?
"It's cool looking back at all those guys and all the history. It's cool to compete against them and I have a lot of respect for those guys and everything they've done."
Not only does he race against them, he races for them and with them. Earnhardt Jr. is his car owner in the NNS and a Hendrick Motorsports driver like Elliott. Jimmie Johnson is his favorite driver and models his style both on and off the track off of the six-time Sprint Cup champ and teammate. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, the other two in the Hendrick Motorsports stable, are no slouches as teammates either. In fact, if Gordon retires or Kahne doesn't re-sign with Hendrick after 2015, Elliott is a candidate to replace them in Sprint Cup.
All the outside pressure and obligations of racing nationally in NASCAR would be enough to make many young people cave. Oh yeah, then there's the whole racing thing. Elliott talks about the adjustments he's had to make the driver - the lack thereof.
"On the track stuff is pretty straightforward. There are some different characteristics that the cars you are driving might have. There's a different balance and feel than other cars I've driven in the past."
Really? Racing in the NNS is straightforward? Well, when you've been racing as long as he has and with the guidance of champions, you get prepared. Elliott's biggest adjustment has been off the track.
"Off the track, the media side has been the most different."
The media corps tend to ask for a lot and blow things out of proportion. Take conflict, for example. Elliott is generally thought of as a clean driver, but has had a couple of scrapes in NASCAR. He spun out Ty Dillon to win at Mid-Ohio for his first NCWTS win last year. Alex Tagliani made contact with Elliott while passing him at Road America a few weeks ago and then just two weeks ago at Kentucky Speedway, Elliott got into Trevor Bayne late in the race, costing each a few spots at the end. Bayne was none too pleased on the radio. Elliott's method of handling conflict also seems to have been influenced by his dad, who rarely if ever got into on-track retaliations or off-track fights with other drivers. But the younger Elliott says not all ways of handling conflict can be taught.
"I think you have to learn a lot on your own. Everyone works hard to try to race and get one spot better - to be better than the next guy. You might put yourself into positions you wish you hadn't have done. Things may not have turned out how you wanted to after something. You've got to keep that in mind and make a smart move. If it's something you've gotta think about, you probably shouldn't do it."
That last line of wisdom was delivered in true, matter-of-fact Elliott fashion that drew Elliott's father to being NASCAR's most popular driver for years and has gained Elliott himself his own legion of fans. When Elliott races the August 30th Great Clips 300 to benefit Feed the Children at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he hopes to still be in championship contention. Whether he is or not, he will have a section for those fans.
AMS is inviting fans to purchase "Chase's Crew" tickets to Champions Grandstand section 156 for $30. The first 150 will be invited to a private autograph session with Elliott and the first 1,000 get a Chase Elliott rally towel. And yes, Elliott is more than looking forward to tackling the high banks of his hometrack, which kind of resembles the shape of Texas and the tire wear of Darlington, the sites of his two NNS wins.
"It's kind of a cool place for me to go race. I've grown up racing on the quarter-mile down the front straightaway [in Legends cars] and to finally have an opportunity to race the track in my backyard and NAPA Auto Parts' backyard - and being here in Atlanta, we're both based out of here - it's kind of a home track for everybody and we're looking forward to getting down there in a couple of weeks."
Elliott has not yet made the move to the Charlotte area, where most NASCAR racers live. He stays in Dawsonville with his proud parents, cruising around in his Chevy Silverado pickup and not a sleek Corvette. He says he hopes to run some more Late Model races, but that's hard to plan around his hectic NNS schedule.
Georgia racing fans have to be encouraged. Unlike many young guys, Elliott has managed to race with a level head, gain the respect of many, not wreck very much, and still be fast. Those are the ingredients that have propelled his teammates and mentors Johnson and Gordon to championships. That prospect for Elliott's fans is salivating.