Chase Elliott out to buck 'downer' trend with Sprint Cup debut
There are expectations, and then there’s what 19-year-old Chase Elliott now faces as he prepares to make his NASCAR Sprint Cup debut in the STP 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway this Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1). The driver’s name alone seems to promise far too much. The surname comes from his father, Bill—the 1987 Cup series champion, the two-time Daytona 500 winner and freshly minted Hall of Fame inductee. The first name is a proper noun he shares with NASCAR’s playoff system—a thrill ride he, alas, has no chance of joining even if he scores an automatic bid with a victory on perhaps the roughest short track on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Elliott, of course, is ineligible for a couple of obvious reasons: 1) he hasn’t been attempting to qualify or run for points in Cup races; and 2) he’s technically still on the hook for his proverbial dues in the Xfinity series. Thing is, many believed he paid those off when, as an 18-year-old newbie, he won three races on the way to becoming the first rookie and youngest driver ever to claim a national series championship. Certainly team owner Rick Hendrick—who, in addition to Cup super team Hendrick Motorsports, presides over JR Motorsports, the Xfinity outfit for which Elliott races—gave the teen credit for as much. When four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon announced in January that this season would be his last behind the wheel of the iconic number 24 car, Hendrick immediately tapped Elliott as Gordon’s replacement.
Hence the lofty expectations, which might seem overwhelming to just about everyone else, but are anything but to Elliott himself. “I think a lot of people realize—some people don’t—but a lot of people realize that’s still a year away,” he says of the impending changing of the guard. “My main focus right now this season is not looking too far ahead and hoping that we can put together a solid year on the whole—both on the Cup and Xfinity side.”
Still, tell that to Vegas, which is nonetheless setting a high bar for the rook. One betting site put Elliott’s prospects of winning at 75-to-1. Those chances, while understandably worse than, say, those of Tony Stewart (40-to-1), are surprisingly better than those of A.J. Allmendinger (a 100-to-1 shot who is running 11th in points), Aric Almirola (a 200-to-1 shot who made the ’14 Chase) and Casey Mears (a 500-to-1 shot who is running 12th in points).
The confidence in Elliott couldn’t be more at odds with NASCAR’s “debut downer” trend. Since 1980, only three drivers have scored top 10 finishes in their very first Cup races: Carl Edwards, who took 10th at Michigan in August of 2004; Kenny Irwin Jr., who logged an eighth-place effort at Richmond in September of 1997; and Matt Kenseth, whose sixth-place finish at Dover is just as unlikely now as it was in September of 1998.
Kenseth had barely finished practicing for Dover’s undercard race in the Xfinity series, where he was in his second year driving fulltime, when he was hit by a cluster bomb of news: Bill Elliott’s 74-year-old father, George, had died of complications from a cancerous brain tumor removal, and Elliott was skipping the Dover Cup race to attend the funeral. His team wondered if Kenseth would mind filling in. “It all happened within probably an hour,” recalls Kenseth, who reckons he might’ve been able to do even better. “We probably had a third-place car. We got behind a little bit in the pits the last stop and couldn’t get past Rusty [Wallace] for pits there. But we had a great day. We ran as high as second for a while behind Mark Martin; he and Gordon had the two best cars.”
Kenseth’s charmed rollout markedly contrasts with those of later generations of young drivers who were roundly criticized when their early results fell short of industry projections. (Think Joey Logano.) “It was probably easier to make that first start then than it has been for a lot of other people,” Kenseth continues. “There wasn’t a lot of hype or a lot of build-up or planning, a long time to think about it—all that kind of stuff.”
To be fair, Chase Elliott’s path to this point in his NASCAR career wasn’t exactly well plotted out either. His 2014 Xfinity racing plans didn’t come together until December of ’13. His principal benefactor, NAPA Auto Parts, began backing him the very next month. And then of course Gordon’s retirement came completely out of the blue.
As his Hendrick heir, Elliott stands to inherit top-notch equipment—though for this race and the four on his part-time schedule, he’ll be racing in a purpose-built number 25 car until the number 24 is handed down to him. Another positive indicator for his future success: “The guys that usually make it in Cup are the guys who can run the Xfinity series on a pretty consistent basis, run with and beat the Cup drivers that come over there,” says Kenseth—who, after placing in the top three in the Xfinity year-end standings in 1998 and ’99, went on to claim a Cup championship in 2003. “And Chase has obviously been one of those guys who won a lot of races last year and won races at some really hard race tracks against Cup drivers.”
What’s more, Elliott has warded off signs of a sophomore slump while tangling with fellow YA upstarts Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher—who are just ahead of him in the Xfinity points race. Even more impressive: Elliott has managed to stay up front even after losing Greg Ives—his crew chief during the ’14 Xfinity title run—to another of his bosses, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Along with missing Ives’s soothing voice, Elliott will also be without his regular pit crew, which services Kasey Kahne’s car on Sundays. The challenges would seem reason enough to start making excuses. Elliott is not so inclined. “We’re definitely going to show up to race,” he says. “You don’t want to leave anything out there. But at the same time I think that since we’re in the show, it is important to run all the laps,” says Elliott, who would only need to finish 32nd to best his dad’s Cup debut at Rockingham in 1976. “That’s definitely a goal of mine. If I can run all the laps and stay on the lead lap all day, that’d be a great thing to achieve.”
While that might not be what everyone’s expecting, the good news is that there’s still plenty of time for Elliott to make good on all that.