Chase Elliott might be a rookie, but the son of NASCAR great Bill Elliott grew up racing just about anything with an engine and four tires.
Elliott arrived on the sport’s biggest series armed with a lot of experience, and picked up some more Monday – the hard way – at Pocono Raceway.
Elliott led the most laps (51), had one of the fastest cars in the field and looked to be on his way to his first victory more than halfway through the Axalta 400.
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But Elliott made a rookie mistake when he dueled with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. after a late restart, opening a lane for Kurt Busch to take the lead from Earnhardt and go on to grab the checkered flag.
Elliott, 20, ended up fourth behind Busch, Earnhardt and Brad Keselowski.
“I feel like I made a big mistake there in the tunnel (turn) and it gave Kurt a big run,” Elliott said, referring to the second turn that goes over the tunnel entrance at the 2.5-mile triangular track.
“Biggest thing is just learn,” Elliott added. “And be just be really proud that we had a super-fast car, a car that could lead all day, and a group of guys that are willing to fight to try to get to Victory Lane.”
Earnhardt said he could have been a little more aggressive during the restart with 32 laps remaining. But he understood why Elliott was gunning hard for him in what proved to be the pivotal point in the race.
“(Elliott) and me were racing pretty hard. He was really trying to get his lead back, and he knew if he could get the lead he was going to win the race,” Earnhardt said. “He got me loose a little bit. That slowed us up some. (Busch) got a good run on him and I didn’t do a good enough job holding (Busch) off.”
Monday’s race, delayed a day by heavy rains, was Elliott’s first Sprint Cup race at Pocono after he competed in an Automobile Racing Club of America event there in 2013.
The ARCA series was one of several stops for Elliott as he climbed racing’s ladder. Those experiences – combined with his background in the sport – made Elliott well equipped to take over the No. 24 Chevrolet from Jeff Gordon when Gordon retired after last season.
“I don’t think you get hired by a team like that unless you’re good,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t expect him to struggle. I thought that he’s got a lot of laps under his belt. He’s been (through) a lot of high-pressure situations.”
Earnhardt understands as well as anyone what it means to follow a famous father into the sport. Earnhardt said he likes the way Elliott carries himself.
“He’s been in so many scenarios if you look at his career over the last four or five years. He’s been through it all,” Earnhardt said of Elliott’s experience racing on the Late Model, Truck and Xfinity series.
“Certainly learned a ton, got a real good attitude, really calm, doesn’t get excited about much,” Earnhardt added. “And he’s got a really, really good crew chief (Alan Gustafson), a guy that I think really is wrapping his arms around the idea of working with Chase and grooming Chase.”
That process continued Monday when Elliott looked to have figured out a track dubbed the “Tricky Triangle.”
Elliott started 13th but moved quickly into the top five, running second behind Matt Kenseth for about 30 laps. Elliott zipped past Kenseth at the 165-mile mark and held the lead for 50 of the next 53 laps. (He’d only led 32 laps all season before Pocono.)
Elliott was shuffled back a bit after several wrecks and restarts late in the race. But he regained the lead for a lap with 83 miles left before Earnhardt reclaimed it before the final restart.
Elliott posted his 10th top-10 finish this season, more than every Sprint Cup driver but Kevin Harvick (11) and Busch (12), who are Nos. 1-2 in the points standings. Elliott’s fourth-place finish moved him to No. 7 in points, eight spots ahead of Ryan Blaney as the top rookie.
And while Elliott didn’t get the win in Pocono that would have punched his ticket for the Chase, he heads to Michigan this week with added confidence – and another learning experience under his belt.
“I feel like (Hendrick) had four really fast cars today. I hope that’s a good sign for races to come,” he said. “We certainly had one of our best days of the year personally. I thought for us to be able to contend and lead laps all day and have a car that could fight for the lead the majority of the day was great. …
“I wish I had been a little more patient (after the restart) and given ourselves a better chance, but you live and learn.”