Pressure’s on Elliott, and he’s fine with that
It’s not enough that Chase Elliott comes from racing royalty thanks to having one of the all-time greats, Bill Elliott, for a father.
Add to that Elliott is the only hope traditional racing power Hendrick Motorsports has at winning a title as no other team car survived to the round of eight in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. If that wasn’t enough, Elliott is also the lone Chevrolet driver standing for a company that has won more than twice as many titles (39) as the next manufacturer (Ford, 15).
Having to live up to all of that would seem like a tall order, but it’s a challenge that Elliott has met head on and has developed into one of the biggest stars in the sport at the ripe old age of 22.
“It’s important for the sport that he has success,” Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said. “I read where Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. used to read that about himself and it offended him because he took it as it was he wasn’t doing well enough. He said now he’s come to realize what it meant was people all wanted him to win. Chase can lift our whole sport because the fans have taken to him so closely, and he’s delivered this year – three wins. If he wins three races every year for the rest of his life that’s perfect.”
Elliott was Gossage’s choice to win the championship a few weeks ago so he may have been a little biased. Or maybe he was onto something.
In this third full season in NASCAR’s top series, the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has emerged as one of the top stars in the sport. He earned his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at Watkins Glen, putting him 43 wins behind his father. Once the playoffs started Elliott closed the gap even more with wins at Dover and Kansas.
“I definitely had some more confidence after getting to Watkins Glen,” said Elliott, who toured the General Motors plant in Arlington on Thursday along with his father. “That was a major hurdle. There were some trying times to get to that point. But the biggest thing since then is just knowing that to win those races we haven’t changed our approach at all to do that. From my rookie year to ’17 to this year from week-to-week our approach in meetings and preparations haven’t changed a bit. I think that’s great to know that the process we use works. That’s encouraging.”
Elliott may have to tinker with his approach a little either Sunday or next week in Phoenix. He’s on the outside looking in in the race to secure one of the four spots in the season finale at Homestead. A win guarantees him a spot, and that’s what he may have to rely on as he’s sixth in points and 31 out of the playoff picture.
He knows that’s going to be a tough task given the experienced drivers ahead of him. Four of the five ahead of him in the standings have won championships and the lone exception (Joey Logano), who is guaranteed a spot at Homestead after last week’s win at Martinsville.
That’s going to make outmaneuvering the competition tough.
“You can get aggressive here and there but throughout the season everyone is aggressive all the time,” he said. “Gutsy pit strategies that we used to think were gutsy five years ago are the norm now. That’s just what we see every week. Gas only. Two tires. You do what you do to put yourself in the best position you can.”
Elliott hasn’t finished worse than 11th in his five starts at the track. Those are good numbers, but good isn’t good enough at this point. He struggled in practice Friday and will start 16th.
“Honestly, being good doesn’t cut it in the round that we’re currently in,” said Elliott, who did win his first Xfinity Series race at TMS in 2014. “You have to be running inside the top five all day to score and accumulate the points from each stage and obviously the final race results to keep up because that’s what the competitors are going to do.”
A three-win breakout season would be enough for a lot of drivers. But not for Elliott.
“Sure, winning is great,” he said. “I’d rather much have three wins than none, but no I think it just gives you more fire to want to compete for a championship because you know when you get to Homestead you’re going to have to win. And that you’ve won a couple of races gives you some confidence to go do that.”