If you had to sum up Chase Elliott’s 2017 in one word, it would be “almost.” Elliott almost grabbed his first Cup Series win in his sophomore season but fell just short — on several occasions. He finished second in five races, including four times in the playoffs. He almost made the cut to race for the championship but couldn’t hang on in the closing laps at Phoenix.
One thing he did accomplish: With his fifth-place finish in the final standings, Elliott was the top driver in the Chevrolet stable on the circuit.
Last year was Elliott’s second racing in the Cup Series full-time, and his second inside the top 10 in driver points. During those two full seasons, Elliott has finished in the top 10 more than half the time. Being the top Chevy driver means that he was also tops among his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, one of whom is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
It would be foolish to believe that Elliott won’t shed the “almost a winner” label soon. His numbers are too good overall, and he’s still just 22 years old.
Elliott swaps the No. 24 for the No. 9 this season at Hendrick, the number his Hall of Fame father, Bill, drove for much of his career. That’s the only big internal change for Elliott heading into the season, which bodes well. He and his team, led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, were close to breaking through to the next level, and they’ll kick off this season hungry to grab the win that has eluded them.
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One big change that Elliott and his team will have to embrace is Chevrolet’s move from the SS to the Camaro as its Cup car. Elliott drove the Camaro in the XFINITY Series, which may give him a leg up, and so far, the Camaro’s numbers in the wind tunnel are much closer to the competition from Ford and Toyota than the SS was last year. Hendrick is one of the top Chevy teams, so it will have plenty of support in the transition, and its engines are among the most powerful in NASCAR. They may suffer slightly on the durability scale for it, but they’re stout.
Elliott also will have a pair of new teammates in the Hendrick stable. William Byron moves into the former No. 5 car (now No. 24) as Elliott’s shopmate. Byron, the reigning XFINITY Series champion, also drove the Camaro in that series, and if he can hit the ground running, the young duo could prove dangerous for years to come. Alex Bowman also joins the fold, taking over the No. 88 after serving as a substitute in that car in 2016 and a Hendrick test driver last year. Bowman has some Cup competition experience under his belt with underfunded independent Tommy Baldwin Racing, but this will be his first year full-time with a top-caliber team. And while Bowman will share shop space with Johnson, he’d be wise to work with Elliott as well.
Elliott will still have Johnson to lean on, and a youngster can’t ask for much more in that department than to have a driver of that caliber as a mentor. He also has veteran Gustafson to bounce things off of, and the two worked well in 2017. They’ve proven to be a threat after getting to know each other over the past two years. And that’s only going to get better as they build their playbook.
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Elliott is a safe bet for a playoff berth again this year, and look for him to get in with a win. That should give the No. 9 team more time to focus on a title run instead of making the show — and that will make Elliott very dangerous in 2018.