It took Chase Elliott longer to get to Victory Lane in NASCAR’s top series than many expected, but once he got that winning feeling, he liked it. Elliott won three times in 2018, breaking the barrier for the first time at Watkins Glen in August and grabbing a pair of wins in the second round of the playoffs, inserting himself into the championship conversation despite a down year for his Hendrick Motorsports organization overall.
Entering his fourth full season in the Cup series, Elliott looks to be emerging as the new face of Hendrick. He capped off his sixth-place finish in driver points last year by winning the Most Popular Driver award. That’s determined exclusively by fans, and Elliott took 46 percent of all the votes cast, easily beating out Kyle Busch for the honor.
Why is that important? Sponsors. If fans are supporting their driver, odds are they’re sporting his sponsors’ logos on hats, t-shirts or other items. Main primary sponsor NAPA Auto Parts is on board through 2020 for the lion’s share of races, with Hooters, SunEnergy1, Kelley Blue Book and Mountain Dew staying in the game as well. That means that the team can concentrate on racing and not marketing to backers for the next couple of years, and that kind of stability can’t be underestimated.
Elliott emerged as Hendrick’s top dog last year as Jimmie Johnson struggled. Elliott’s contract runs through 2022, a vote of confidence that again brings stability to his team. Even though HMS was a step behind the curve in 2018, Elliott still drives for one of NASCAR’s top organizations. Chassis and engines are built in-house, and with that comes the confidence that everything is exactly what each driver needs to succeed.
From there, it’s in the hands of Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson. A veteran who has been with the Hendrick organization since 2005 and won with four different drivers — including Elliott — Gustafson calls sound race strategy and orchestrates a pit crew that gets the job done with few mistakes. His ability to adapt to different drivers and win with them speaks well for Gustafson and points to future success.
So what is Elliott’s weakness? That’s tough, because he’s fairly consistent, and he finishes races. In order to be a bigger title threat, though, he does need to lead more laps. Elliott was 11th among Cup drivers in that category; by comparison, the four drivers who competed for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway were the top four in laps led last year, and all four were more than 600 laps led ahead of Elliott’s 325. That ability to run up front on a weekly basis matters. In order to win, a driver has to put himself in position to be there at the end, and the more laps led, the more likely that is to happen.
Elliott has also at times seemed to lack confidence in himself. Often apologetic to his team after a loss, Elliott has had a tendency to droop rather than hold his head up with the knowledge that he can win the next week. He’s gotten better in the last year as his results have put him in the title picture, but at times he appears to have conceded to the competition instead of coming out of a losing effort fighting mad.
Overall, though, Elliott’s progression hints at a great future. He’s won throughout the NASCAR ranks and has improved each year in the Cup series. He’s made the playoffs and finished in the top 10 in each of his three full seasons. He dropped a spot in points in 2018 compared to 2017, but the wins overshadow that by a lot. He’s putting himself in position to be a real title contender in the coming years. HMS needs to step up a bit before he’s a preseason title favorite, but he’s in the conversation.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 7/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)