There are plenty of veteran NASCAR drivers who would love to put up the numbers that Chase Elliott posted in 2016. He had more top-10 finishes than series champion Jimmie Johnson, led more laps than former champion Kurt Busch, and recorded a better average finish than three-time champion Tony Stewart. Elliott also finished 10th in driver standings despite not winning a race on the season.
Did we mention that Elliott was just 20 years old, and a rookie?
Elliott faced an unenviable task last year, taking over the No. 24 after the retirement of future Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, who drove the car to 93 victories over 23 years. Even for the son of a NASCAR Hall of Famer in Bill Elliott, it was a daunting proposition.
Chase Elliott was up to the task.
After a rough Daytona 500, which he started from the pole, Elliott posted a top 10 at Atlanta. And another one at Phoenix, and Fontana. By the time the series returned to Daytona at midseason, Elliott already had 11 top 10s and had led six races, a few of them for an impressive number of laps. Elliott made the Chase on points and averaged a finish of 6.3 in the first three Chase races. A crash at Charlotte and issues at Kansas ended his title bid, but Elliott clearly made a statement. He went on to finish no worse than 12th in the final five races.
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His exceptional rookie season effectively silenced some of the questions, but it also set expectations sky high for 2017. It would seem that it’s a question of when, not if, Elliott visits Victory Lane, and while the driver was apologetic for not winning last year (Gordon didn’t win as a rookie either), he’s absolutely on the right track to break through.
And when the win comes, Elliott has the look of a driver who will keep on winning. That’s not a given, and it’s certainly not as simple as it sounds on paper, but nobody should be surprised if it happens.
What does Elliott have on his side? Let’s start with Hendrick Motorsports equipment. He’s got championship-caliber cars and engines from Hendrick’s in-house shop — equipment that has frustrated other teams for years. He’s got teammates who will gladly share advice and setup information with him. And they win races — Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne have 123 victories among them, and what they can share with their younger teammate is extremely valuable. Both Johnson and Earnhardt had multiple wins by the end of their second seasons in the series. They will help Elliott any way they can, and that’s not something every team does.
Sponsors? Elliott’s got good ones. NAPA Auto Parts covers the lion’s share of races, but 3M, SunEnergy1, Kelley Blue Book and Mountain Dew all have a piece of the action as well. The support of companies like these is invaluable, and having it allows Elliott to worry about just one thing: winning races.
Crew chief? Got that too, in veteran Alan Gustafson, who has led Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Gordon to Victory Lane in the past. Hendrick is known for turning athletes into pit crews, and Elliott’s team performed well last year. In a day when races can be won or lost in the pits, a good team is crucial to success.
It would seem that Elliott has all of the pieces in place to have a top-5 season. So where’s the catch? If there’s a weakness, it’s that Elliott is very, very hard on himself. He sincerely apologizes to his team for a top-5 run that didn’t turn into a win. Balancing that pressure is an important lesson — there is a vast difference between racing to win and racing not to lose, and putting too much pressure on himself could lead Elliott down that dangerous latter path. He hasn’t let it happen yet, and it’s not a huge concern right now, but it’s worth watching out for.
If Elliott can let it ride and learn from his stellar 2016 run? Watch out.