Last weekend after Nationwide Series qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched as Chase Elliott hopped the fence and passed a crowd of fans without anyone noticing or asking for his autograph.
“I thought to myself, ‘I know he’s going to win one day or another and just start railing off run after run after run and he’s going to become the next best thing,’ ” Earnhardt said.
“You know, the fans are going to latch right on to him.”
Hours later, Elliott was in Victory Lane at Texas after earning his first series victory.
The “next best thing” is now.
Elliott, the 18-year-old son of former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott, had already made a name for himself for his talent on the track, including a win last season in the NASCAR Truck series.
He joined JR Motorsports this season for his first full season in one of NASCAR’s three national series and has wasted no time in earning the respect of his competitors and admiration of many of has father’s fans.
“He grew up with his father as a racer and saw how popular Bill was, and I’m sure been in and around situations where he’s not going to be overwhelmed with the attention,” Earnhardt said of the younger Elliott. “I know he made a lot of fans, and he’ll make some more throughout the season.
“He’s really focused on his racing and trying to do well. He’s young, doesn’t have a lot of distractions, and, you know, he’s a good family unit so he should be in good hands.”
Elliott has spent the past couple years running in a variety of series under the watchful eye of NASCAR team owner, Rick Hendrick, who signed him to a developmental driver contract.
The win, Elliott hoped, would validate the faith of those who have invested in his racing career.
“I definitely know this is an extremely special win to me and to do it at JRM with NAPA Auto Parts and such a new deal that came together this offseason,” Elliott said.
“This win will be hard to beat, getting your first win at anything is an honor and it’s a great feeling. I feel like this one for sure means a lot, and it’s got to be right up there at the top.”
On top is where Elliott finds himself after his impressive victory at Texas.
After six races, he now leads the Nationwide series standings by two points over his JRM teammate, Regan Smith.
Although it might seem an improbable start for such a young driver, his competitors are not surprised.
“I think Chase – he’s got a knack for this,” said Kyle Busch, who finished as runner-up to Elliott in the Texas Nationwide race. “We’ve seen that for years with him racing Late Models and stuff.
“I’ve raced against him before, and he’s really good at what he does. So, it’s cool to see him succeed at this level now and keep going.”
Earnhardt said he sees a lot of Chase’s father in him, both on the track and in his demeanor off of it.
“Chase just seems to understand what’s happening around him and how he needs to handle it, and he just had a real calm and smooth it demeanor that’s going to benefit him and really take him a long ways,” Earnhardt said.
“It’s pretty impressive, really, to be honest with you, how his temperament is and personality is and I’m having a lot of fun working with him and look forward to the future.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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