Chase Elliott, 22, has racing in his blood. As the son of 1988 Cup champ Bill Elliott (aka “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville”), William Clyde “Chase” Elliott II grew up around the track and got involved in the sport at an early age. At 18, Elliott won the 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship to become the youngest champ in NASCAR national series history. Two years later, Chase was named 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year.
This season, Elliott broke through with his first Cup Series victory and has his Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet poised to compete for titles, year-in and year-out. We caught up with the hotshoe driver with one of the brightest futures in sports to talk about his early success, being compared to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the Georgia native’s love of Atlanta Braves baseball and Bulldogs football.
How did growing up around the sport help you?
Having a little bit of an understanding and a different respect for it. Seeing it from a different angle. There's obviously a lot more that goes into it than what meets the eye from the outside looking in. You take the entertainment factor and you leave it at that. But growing up within it, you see the efforts and things that go into putting on a team or a race and realize that there's a whole lot more than what meets the eye.
People seem to really push that Dale Earnhardt Jr. comparison onto you. What’s your relationship with Dale?
My relationship with him has been great. He's become a good friend of mine over the past couple of years. But man, I really don't care [about the Dale Jr. comparison]. What people decide is fine. My relationship with him has been good, and I can't really complain.
Has Dale Jr. given you any kind of advice? Or have you gone to him at all? There's not that many guys that know what it's like to deal with the fan attention and external pressures you’ve both dealt with…
Yeah, we've discussed it some, not a lot. I certainly have a lot of respect for him and how he's dealt with challenges throughout his life. Obviously, how could you not respect him? He's gone about the position that he's been put in very professionally and I think there's something to be learned from that, definitely.
You’ve said, "Pressure is a privilege." Explain that concept…
When you're in those positions and have opportunities [to win], trying to take advantage of them. I feel like there's been times in the past where I've had opportunities and didn’t take advantage of them, so I thought if I was ever in that position again, it'd be important to think about.
Do you feel any additional pressure to perform since so many iconic drivers have retired in the past couple of years? How has that impacted you and maybe the younger generation?
I don't think it has, really, other than just opening up opportunities for younger guys. There's still a lot of guys that have been around for a long time still racing. And frankly, I hope that they stay around because the guys that are still winning consistently are, for the most part, guys that have been around for a while and I want to have an opportunity to try to beat the best. Enjoying the time you have to race with the veterans of the sport is fun.
Rumor has it that NASCAR is up for sale. If you were in charge of the sport, what would you change?
I'd hire the right person to do it or find somebody that isn't afraid to make some changes. But I don't know, my list would be too long to start with you right now.
What’s one thing that jumps out at you, that you’d change if you were in charge?
More than anything, probably the schedule. I don't think that us going to some of these race tracks twice a year is necessary. We have a long schedule. And I love racing, don't get me wrong. But that would be the first thing I would look at, just to see if there was a way to make less more. You know, when a person has one race in their region a year, they're probably more apt to go to it and enjoy more so than having two a year, or two really close to each other. That'd be the first thing I'd go to and see if there's anything I could do better there or not.
I read you're a big Georgia Bulldogs fan. Do you ever get to any games? I know the schedules probably conflict.
No. Really the only game I can ever go to is the Georgia Tech game at the end of the season. I certainly hope to get to that one. It's in Athens this year, so I might go and watch. And who knows? If there are ever any races that were close to Athens, I'd love to go on a Saturday night and watch a game and get back to where we are. But the circumstances have to fall just perfect to be able to do something like that. If I can't go, certainly I'll be watching.
You're also a Braves fan. Who's your all-time favorite Brave?
Probably Chipper Jones. When I was really getting into the Braves and watching them more, he was kind of finishing up his career. I was really young back in the late ‘90s, when the Braves were just rocking and rolling, and didn't really pay attention to a whole lot of that. But as I started to follow along, I really grew a lot of appreciation for him, and became a fan, and got to watch him really go out on top, I thought. I mean, he was at the top of his game when he quit. To be able to do what he did for so long and do it the right way.
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Now, let’s get ready for some tire-smoking, pulse-pounding action!
I also read you're a pilot. How'd you get into that?
Yeah, I am. My dad's flown for a long time and I was lucky enough to grow up in a situation where we flew to races and enjoyed it. He's a pilot himself. It's an opportunity for me to live somewhere other than Charlotte and be able to make it work. It's kind of one of those things I grew up around and has evolved into doing a little bit of it myself.
How many hours do you have in the air?
That's a good question. I haven't added it up in a while. I’m approaching the 1,000 [hour] mark I'd say here before too long.
What's your favorite track to race at?
I really don't have one. But there are places that they're more fun than others. I look at Bristol as a really fun race track and fun atmosphere. I enjoy that one, but hard to really pick one. There's some cool places to visit.
What kind of driver are you in real life out on the Interstate?
Fairly mild. I try not to go wide open too much. I don't know, you've got get aggressive every now and then.
You ever get any bad speeding tickets?
I have had one or two.
What do you do to stay busy during a rain delay?
Not a whole lot, to be honest with you. Something to kill time, whether it's playing video games, eating. I feel like there's a lot of eating that goes on during rain delays. Anything you would just do sitting around. Watch TV and hang out. Just waiting on the word ‘Go.’
Besides your dad, who was your favorite driver growing up?
I was always a big Tony Stewart fan. I think he is kind of just the definition of a racer's racer and I always appreciated that.
You've done some voiceover work in a couple of things, including Cars. Darrell Waltrip said he just recorded it on his own and never saw anybody else. Is that how it was for you?
It was, yeah. It was very interesting how they do that. Obviously, my part was not even worth mentioning compared to his in those films. But it was a lot of fun. Cool experience, and I'd love to maybe do more of that if the opportunity ever presented itself. But yeah, it was strange. I was basically on a FaceTime call with the director out in L.A., and he walked me through how I said something versus what he was looking for. That was how we did it. It was really cool. Technology nowadays, you really don't have to be somewhere physically to do a voiceover like that, which is nice. It saved me a trip to L.A.
Your first win was the 250th for Hendrick Motor Sports. What does that say about the quality of organization on your part of it?
To have that amount of wins as a company is really impressive. You know, all in the Cup Series, too. It just shows Mr. [Rick] Hendrick's commitment and involvement, and he likes to win and that's what he's here to do. He's very committed to doing that. So I appreciate his efforts in trying to improve, always trying to get better, pushing all of us to do our thing, and keeping each and every one of his employees fired up and with the right attitude. I appreciate that, and I know everybody else does as well.
A company that big is only as good as the person leading it, and he has shown some great strengths in that area across the board whether it's his motorsports or automotive group that he has. He does things the right way and treats people the right way. People appreciate that, and they see it. That's why he's done so well.