Elliott sails through 1st season to claim title

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Chase Elliott's first season racing on a national level has gone smoother than anyone expected.

Elliott wrapped up the Nationwide Series title last week but won't officially celebrate his championship until after Saturday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The trophy presentation will cap a whirlwind year for the 18-year-old rookie, who didn't even have a ride last November.

Elliott has three wins this season, 26 top-10 finishes in 32 races and beat JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith for the title. It was the first Nationwide title for the team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., his sister Kelley, and Rick Hendrick.

Crew chief Greg Ives said the biggest issues the team has faced this year has been Elliott, the youngest champion in NASCAR history, not knowing his way around the race track and adjusting to life on the road.

''He'll often ask where the bathrooms are. Or what's to eat,'' Ives said Thursday. ''He's always eating somewhere. We had to start taking away the junk food out of the cabinets because his metabolism - he's trying to keep that fed. I don't even know what he was eating, but I know he was eating a lot.''

Earnhardt has found Elliott, the son of Hall of Fame inductee and 1988 NASCAR champion Bill Elliott, to be extremely mature for his age. Part of it is the focus Elliott has on racing - although he's risen rapidly through the ranks, his father has not funded his career and Elliott has had to earn his rides.

The result is that although Elliott has the same interests as other 18-year-olds, he seems like a seasoned veteran behind the wheel.

''His priorities are definitely different than a lot of people's, but he's still very focused and very driven, determined, just loves to race, enjoys being in the cars,'' Earnhardt said. ''The only time you forget he's 18 is definitely when he's behind the wheel.''

Elliott's ride came together at the start of the year, when sponsor NAPA signed on with JRM to give the company the funding it needed to field a car for Elliott. He was in his final semester of high school and desperately hoping to put a program together that would jumpstart his career.

It ended several tense months for Elliott, who wasn't sure something was going to come together. He wasn't eligible for a Nationwide Series ride until his 18th birthday last November.

''This time a year ago, I didn't have any plans,'' he said. ''As I got closer to the offseason, had a couple of conversations with Mr. Hendrick about running just a few, just a handful of Nationwide races maybe. Still wasn't really even confirmed at that. I'd have been stoked to just run five or two or one.''

Now he's a champion and some wonder whether he should have been moved up to the elite Sprint Cup level. Kyle Larson spent just one season in Nationwide last year before he was promoted to Cup, and Elliott's fans want their driver on the same fast track.

Hendrick has indicated they'll keep him in Nationwide for now. Hendrick Motorsports does not have an open seat next year, and many believe Elliott could be Jeff Gordon's successor whenever he chooses to retire.

Elliott isn't worried about a Cup ride just yet, he's more focused on claiming his championship.

''It's really not official until Saturday night. So we'll kind of let it sink in then, and certainly we'll enjoy it this offseason and just enjoy the weekend,'' Elliott said. ''This weekend, I think, first and foremost, it's going to be a lot of fun, and kind of for everybody to enjoy the last week of the season together and just go out and compete for a victory and not have to worry about the championship.''

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