The subject of testing had just been broached at a recent Hendrick Motorsports team meeting. A test at a distant NASCAR track was scheduled for an upcoming “off” week, when the organization’s four drivers otherwise had no official responsibilities.
The question was asked around the table: Who would represent Hendrick?
“Chase!” Jimmie Johnson replied. “Sign him up!”
Ah, the life of a rookie.
But Chase Elliott might not be your average first-year NASCAR Sprint Cup driver. He is the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, stepping into one of the sport’s iconic cars – the No. 24 Chevy vacated by a recently retired Jeff Gordon. And Elliott already is off to a precocious start after winning the pole for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500. At age 20, he’s the youngest driver to win the pole at Daytona and only the sixth rookie to do so.
But a rookie still is a rookie. And although Elliott said he hasn’t had to buy doughnuts for those team meetings, he knows where he stands on a team that features established stars Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. When he gets drafted for a test, he agrees.
“What am I going to say?” Elliott said.
Elliott doesn’t really mind.
“I feel very comfortable there,” he said. “I don’t think I could ask for three better (teammates). I still consider Jeff a teammate, as well. He’s still watching. It’s not like he’s not a part of it. He still has a major role in what we do. The guys have been fantastic to work with.”
Among Elliott’s other mentors is, of course, his father, who won 44 races on NASCAR’s top circuit, one Cup championship and was NASCAR’s most popular driver 16 times. Bill Elliott also won the “Winston Million” bonus in 1985, when he won three (Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala., and Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C.) of NASCAR’s four “crown jewel” races (Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 is the other).
You’re almost embarrassed by the attention because you don’t feel like it’s really deserved because you haven’t done anything yet, in your mind.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I can help him more from this side than the racing side,” Bill Elliott said. “On the racing side, he can lean on Jimmie, Dale, Kasey and (team owner Rick Hendrick). Those guys can help get him through. But I can tell him what to expect. I understand this side of it more than anybody. Nobody had ever been exposed to things like I was in 1985. When I finally got my head screwed on straight, to get to that point was huge. He’s got that kind of focus.”
Bill Elliott won the Daytona 500 pole three consecutive times (1985-87). The Elliotts are one of four father-son duos to win Daytona poles, along with Bobby and Davey Allison, Richard and Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“He’s been around this deal a long time,” Chase Elliott said of his dad. “He’s in a unique position because he’s watched the sport change in a way that a lot of people haven’t. For him to be there firsthand and kind of see how things have come as far … from the ’80s to now is pretty dramatic.”
‘Chew you up, spit you out’
Although the Elliott family’s Dawsonville, Ga., home was consumed with racing (Bill’s race team also included brothers Ernie and Dan), Chase said he was never pressured to follow in their footsteps.
“For some reason, he’s always said this is where he wants to be,” Bill Elliott said. “And I’ve told him numerous times, if this isn’t what you really want to do, go find something else. Because (racing) will chew you up and spit you out.”
Said Chase: “I’ve always had a lot of respect from both my parents from that aspect. Neither one of them have ever forced me to race. It was never that way. It was always my decision. They always let me make that call. They were always just very respectful.
Elliott is the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500 pole and the sixth rookie to do so.
“They weren’t that ‘soccer mom and dad’ out there that sometimes can be tough when you have somebody pushing you to do something. It was just never that way.”
In fact, Chase’s mother, Cindy, had another vision of her son’s future.
“Mom wanted me to go play golf,” Chase said. “She said golf would be a good choice. (I’m) terrible at golf.”
It was easy for Chase to find his way into racing. He loved to play with matchbox cars as a youngster and sat atop his dad’s pit box when he got older. He talked strategy with Ray Evernham, for whom his dad drove for in 2001-03 and two races in ’04.
196.314 mph Elliott’s Daytona 500 qualifying speed
Chase started racing go-karts, then he moved up to Bandolero and Legends cars. The higher he climbed in the sport, the better he got.
“He really excelled once he got to in a late-model and then into heavier cars,” Bill Elliott said. “The light switch came on.”
When Chase was 14, he started racing in the X-1R Pro Cup stock car series, where he won once and had 10 top-10s in 11 starts over two seasons. Then it was on to NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series for two years. In 2014, at age 18, Elliott won the Nationwide, now Xfinity, championship and finished second in that series last season.
Dealing with a famous last name
Now he will start from the pole for the NASCAR’s most famous race, driving one of the sport’s most recognizable cars. And although Elliott doesn’t have his father’s aw-shucks, down-home demeanor, he reacted to winning the pole the way Bill might have – by giving credit to his team.
“I think Chase understates it because of who he is, having that last name,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Maybe he doesn’t want as much attention just yet because he wants to focus on his driving and doesn’t want all that pressure that comes with it.
“He’s a very modest individual. I think his father raised him to be modest, not boisterous. I think he just wants to tone down the level of excitement. I think that would be a reason why I think he makes the comments he does. He wants to temper expectations. He’ll eventually get more comfortable.”
Earnhardt Jr. speaks from experience. He knows what it’s like to come into the sport behind a famous dad.
“You’re almost embarrassed by the attention because you don’t feel like it’s really deserved because you haven’t done anything yet, in your mind,” said Earnhardt Jr., who won two races in his first full Cup season. “You haven’t accomplished these things. You see the level of attention that drivers get when you’re growing up and you’re around the sport as a young kid. You see what they do to get that attention. Then you come in and it just seems like it’s more than you deserve.
“I think that’s why you shy away from it or try to talk the media off the shelf a little bit. You want to back up and reel it in because you don’t feel like you deserve it. You don’t want people to put these expectations up there that are unreasonable because it makes the pressure a lot more difficult to understand and handle.”
Chase Elliott knows he can’t rely only on his bloodlines and the top-notch Hendrick equipment he’s driving to excel in this sport. So he said he’s happy to go to those tests his teammates want to avoid. And that’s why Johnson “volunteered” him recently.
“Yes, he’s low man,” Johnson said. “But at the same time there are certain test sessions that have come up that really could be useful for him. We’re trying to be aware of and let him get as many reps as we can.”
But Elliott had better beware. There are other ways his teammates might want to welcome him to their ranks, and they involve more than bringing doughnuts to meetings.
“We have to wait a few more months until he turns 21, then it’s an open gate,” Johnson said. “It’s like we’re dealing with a minor in some respects. So we’re going easy on him.”
An impressive class
This season’s NASCAR rookie class is as strong as it has been in several years:
Ryan Blaney, Wood Brothers Racing, No. 21 Ford: Will drive for one of the most respected and accomplished teams in NASCAR history.
Chris Buescher, Roush Fenway Racing, No. 60 Ford: He knows what it takes to win, as his Xfinity championship from last season attests.
Jeffrey Earnhardt, GoFas Racing, No. 32 Chevy: Grandson of Dale Earnhardt and nephew of Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks to make a name of his own.
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, No. 24 Chevy: One other benefit of driving for Jeff Gordon’s former team is having crew chief Alan Gustafson.
Brian Scott, Richard Petty Motorsports, No. 44 Ford: Gets full-time Cup ride after seven seasons in what now is Xfinity series.