July 01, 2017

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Chase Elliott knows most NASCAR fans want Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win at Daytona International Speedway.

He understands his Hendrick Motorsports teammate is the sentimental favorite Saturday night, but Elliott has no problem playing spoiler.

Earnhardt will start from the pole at Daytona and Elliott is next to him on the front row. Elliott has made it clear he won't let sentiment get in the way of trophies come race time.

''Sure everybody wants Dale to win his last race at Daytona,'' Elliott said Friday. ''But I'm going to go do my thing and if I have an opportunity to pass a guy and do it the right way, then I am going to try my best to do it.''

Earnhardt is on the pole for the first time in nearly four years. Elliott is still searching his first Cup victory, but he's a cozy sixth in the Cup standings.

Earnhardt is having a crummy year, and Daytona might be his best shot at the win he needs to qualify for the playoffs.

''We are running out of time, and I am aware of that,'' Earnhardt said. ''Yeah, this is probably our best shot to win.''

So Earnhardt is looking for some help in the race, but will he get it from two of his Hendrick teammates, Elliott and Kasey Kahne, in the top four? They are a trio of Chevrolets surrounded by Fords, and Earnhardt would love one to push him to victory.

''Whoever wants to push us to the win tomorrow will be my best friend,'' Earnhardt said. ''I'll invite them over to the pool Sunday.''

Elliott can live without an invite.

Twice this week he's been asked about scenarios involving Earnhardt, and both times Elliott made clear he's not rolling over for his teammate. The idea is absurd to Elliott, and he believes fans will respect him for racing Earnhardt cleanly even if it denies Earnhardt of a win.

''If you go and beat a guy straight up and you have a good run on him and you are able to pass the guy on the last lap to win the race, I mean, I don't see how you could be the villain for doing your job at the end of the day,'' Elliott said. ''I don't see how me trying to go do my job is going to make me a villain. If people think that, so be it.

''But I'm going to go do my thing and if I have an opportunity to pass a guy and do it the right way, then I am going to try my best to do it.''

Earnhardt understands, and raved Friday about his 21-year-old teammate who flies each week to their North Carolina race shop from his Georgia home in a ''helicopter that looks like the C.H.I.P.S. helicopter, a little bubble, a little glass ball flying through the air.''

Elliott, the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, was born to race cars, and Earnhardt is awed by his focus.

''He just comes in his helicopter, and we will have the meeting, and he will go run four miles around the shop and come back and he is just plugged in,'' Earnhardt said. ''There is a side to Bill, his dad, that I was unaware of until later in his career where he goes out skiing and he is a bit of a thrill-seeker. He has this competitive nature that still burns. I see that in Chase too. He isn't scared to go learn how to fly a helicopter. I mean, who does that at that age? I was not thinking of things like that at that age. It is just so impressive. So that says a lot about him to me.''

Elliott has a deep desire to get his first Cup win, and he doesn't sugarcoat his mood following one of his many near misses. But it's hard to predict what he'll do at Daytona, where he's been all over the map in his three previous Cup stars.

Elliott has two poles, both in the Daytona 500, but he's only finished once, in February when he was 14th.

It would be no surprise to see Elliott break through and finally win at Daytona, especially since this week is already shaping up well for him. He announced a four-year contract extension with Hendrick through 2022. He's on the front row at Daytona, and he's so hungry that he feels like he owes Earnhardt nothing on the track.

Instead, he knows the Hendrick fleet is strong and looks forward to working as a unit.

''I don't know that starting three of us in the top five is all that much of an advantage, but I think the fact that the cars have pace is,'' he said. ''And, there is power in numbers as the race goes on, and especially now as we see the manufacturers, everybody kind of teams up and does all these strategy maneuvers and plays and tries to be really smart.

''If we are all fast, hopefully we can all be up toward the front together.''

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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