Elliott begins chase to be next most popular driver
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Chase Elliott won a popularity contest before he even won a Cup Series race.
Elliott was the overwhelming favorite to be crowned the sport’s next most popular driver. Although the actual award will be handed out in nine months, fellow NASCAR drivers polled at Daytona 500 media day expect Elliott to be a slam-dunk winner.
That contest starts Thursday with the NASCAR Duels at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at Daytona to determine the rest of the field. Alex Bowman, who sat out all of 2017 waiting for Earnhardt’s seat to open, put a Hendrick car on the Daytona 500 pole Sunday for a record-tying fourth consecutive year.
“I think [Elliott] already won the 2018 most popular driver award,” Hendrick Motorsports teammate and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the award 15 consecutive years, including in 2017. But Earnhardt’s retirement left the title up for grabs. Well, sort of. All indications are Elliott will take over the top spot, maybe even for the foreseeable future.
“I feel like he’s one of the most important ingredients in what NASCAR racing does going forward because of his family name,” 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick said. “He has the legacy that’s already been built in this sport by his dad. He’s come into this sport with a great name and already proven that he’s going to be competitive. He has those southeast, NASCAR ties to those core fans that none of the rest of us will ever have. He’s the guy.”
Elliott, 22, is the son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott. Both hail from Dawsonville, Ga.
Harvick called the younger Elliott the “biggest tie to our grass-roots NASCAR fan.”
Elliott is entering his third full season at Hendrick Motorsports. He’s winless in 77 career Cup starts, but had 12 top-five finishes in 2017 and five runner-ups.
“When he wins the first time, you’re going to see things that you haven’t seen in a long time from fan reaction and just enthusiasm about this sport,” Harvick said. “And when that happens, it’s going to be good for all of us.”
Johnson said Elliott is “going to be a superstar.”
Elliott took all the praise in stride, saying he appreciated “the kind words for sure.”
But he added that “Nothing is ever for sure till it’s for sure, right?”
Bill Elliott, nicknamed “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville,” won the most popular award 16 times in 19 years. The late Dale Earnhardt won in 2001.
Elliott and the Earnhardts had a lock on the award since 1991.
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired, Chase Elliott is expected to take his place in one big area — the hearts of NASCAR fans.