Young Chase Elliott gets back on a roll as NASCAR heads to Michigan
Chase Elliott was featured in Sports Illustrated 10 years ago as an athlete to watch as a 13-year-old, along with several other youngsters, including baseball player Bryce Harper and golfer Jordan Spieth.
Harper has enjoyed success as an All-Star with the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies and Spieth is a former No. 1 player, winning three majors.
Elliott has lived up to the hype, as well, becoming the youngest driver to win a NASCAR series championship when he took the Xfinity title at age 18 in 2014.
Now, the 23-year-old Elliott is in his fourth year of competing full-time in the Monster Energy Cup Series for the elite Hendrick Motorsports team.
Elliott is the son of legendary driver Bill Elliott, who won the 1988 Cup championship and dominated the competition at Michigan International Speedway in the 1980s, winning seven times at the two-mile superspeedway in a 11-race stretch from 1984-89.
Chase actually replaced a legend when he took over the famous No. 24 car of four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. Chase challenged for wins during his first two years, including second-place finishes at MIS in the June race in 2016 and 2017.
In an interview with The Detroit News in 2010, Chase – then 14 – talked about “how exciting it was when I traveled to watch my dad race when I was younger, especially when he won the Brickyard 400 at Indy (2002). I grew up in the sport and realized that’s what I want to do. It’s my dream to compete in Sprint Cup (now Monster Energy Cup) one day. I know there’s no guarantee, especially with how tough it is to get sponsors.”
It was then when young Chase competed against Monster Energy Cup driver Kyle Busch at Berlin Raceway’s half-mile paved oval near Grand Rapids, actually taking the lead over Busch – who was then 25 and in his third year of driving for Joe Gibbs Racing – before finishing second while gaining valuable experience.
Now Elliott is becoming a fan favorite, just like his father was when he competed.
When Chevrolet drivers were struggling last year in the new Camaro, Elliott earned his breakthrough win at Watkins Glen, then prevailed at Dover and Kansas for three victories in an 11-race span. He finished sixth in points.
Elliott had a strong stretch of five straight top-five finishes heading into the June race at MIS this season, including a win at Talladega and fourth-place spots at Kansas, Charlotte and Pocono. However, he was 20th at MIS, followed with a stretch of six more races outside the top 10, before a big win at Watkins Glen Sunday when he led 80 of 90 laps and held off Martin Truex Jr.
“I like it here better for Chevrolet in general, getting a few wins this year, so things are going better,” said Elliott prior to his win at Watkins Glen. “We’ve had a decent year, certainly at times been a lot better than others. We just have to clean some things up and we’ll be fine.”
Elliott and his No. 9 team certainly cleaned things up Sunday. He ran the perfect race, avoided mistakes and had great pit stops to hold off the hard-charging Truex during the final 20 laps.
“I tried to do all I could; Chase did an excellent job, just didn’t make mistakes,” said Truex, who matches Kyle Busch with a series-high four wins, in a post-race interview Sunday. “Really, all I could do is get to two-car lengths, one and a half at the closest at braking, but he hit his marks.”
Elliott says he doesn’t feel any pressure being the son of a former champion.
“I just try to do my thing,” he said. “I have a certain expectation that I like to see in myself, and really that’s been the main thing for me, and trying to do my job for the group around me.”
Elliott certainly did his job at Watkins Glen with his father and car owner Rick Hendrick on hand. He has worked well with crew chief Alan Gustafson throughout his Monster Energy Cup career.
Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen was big, especially since he had six top-five finishes while leading 402 laps through the first 14 races, then went without a top-five during the seven races heading into Sunday.
Elliott is looking forward to get back to MIS on Friday to prepare for Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 since he has some information to process. The June race showcased the new rules package, where the cars have less horsepower and more drag and downforce. Corner speeds are up and straightaway speeds down, putting the draft in play more for the drivers.
After MIS, there will only be three races left before the cutoff for the 16 drivers who will be fighting it out during the final 10 races for the championship. Elliott is locked into the playoffs with his two wins, and sits eighth in points (676), three points behind Kurt Busch, who finished second to Joey Logano at MIS.
“Since the repave a few years ago (2012), my experience is that it’s just been a really fast place that hasn’t really slowed down, doesn’t seem like it’s aging,” said Elliott of MIS.
Elliott says the new rules package has been a success: “I think it’s great. I feel we’ve had some great races these past few weeks, some close finishes, so what more could you ask for?”
Consumers Energy 400
When: Sunday, 3 p.m.
Where: Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn
Support race: NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Corrigan Oil 200, Saturday, 1 p.m.