The torch has been passed, from one son of a Hall of Famer to another. With the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott is poised to assume the role of fan favorite. In two years at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup level, Elliott, the son of Hall of Famer Bill, has already built an impressive fan following. His popularity is expected only to grow as Dale Jr. fans look for a driver to latch on to.
Elliott has been steady, though not spectacular, in his first two seasons in NASCAR’s premier circuit. In 2017, he improved in all of the major statistical categories — top 5s, top 10s, laps led and average finish. The one hole on his résumé is that he has yet to win a race. But the widely held belief among insiders is that his breakthrough is coming, and soon. Elliott spoke with Athlon Sports about what he has to do differently to get that first win, his feud with Denny Hamlin and which Atlanta Brave he’d hire as his rehydration engineer.
In two seasons in the Cup Series, you have seven second-place finishes and no wins. When you look at those numbers, do you see something missing from how you’re closing races that you need to fix?
It’s kind of interesting — some of the second places are very different than others. I look at some second places as definitely my fault. I look at others as circumstantial things that just didn’t work out, some things that are out of my control. But I think there have been some seconds in there that were in my control enough to change the outcome, and I didn’t. They are all different in some way, shape or form. But the ones I’m most frustrated about are the ones I thought I could have done something different to change the end result.
Have you identified what that "something different" is?
It’s all different. You go to different racetracks and it could be a late-race restart, it could be how you execute pit road, it could be closing laps and navigating lapped traffic. It varies. There’s lessons to be learned in all of them.
Are you too hard on yourself?
No. I feel like I’m a pretty realistic guy. At the end of the day, I’m going to take responsibility for what I feel like I need to do. There’s nobody who understands the situation I am in more than me, and the same goes for anything that anybody does.
What do you know about racing at the Cup level now that you didn’t know when you started two years ago?
A lot of things. It’s an ever-changing sport — the cars and technology change. Trying to make these things go faster is always changing. The competition level is extremely high in this division. It’s very tough competition. Guys you’re racing against are very, very good. They’re in the position they’re in for a reason. They’ve won races and championships for a reason. It didn’t just fall in their laps. In all aspects, the people you’re racing against are all there because they deserve to be there. I like to think I deserve to be here as well and expect to be able to compete with those guys myself.
If you could go back and witness in person some moment from your dad's career from before you were born, which would it be?
I would say the Winston Million. [Any driver who won three of the four biggest races of the season — the Daytona 500, Talladega’s Winston 500, Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 — in one year was given $1 million. Elliott won all but the 600 in 1985.] That would be an incredible event to be at, when he won the Million at Darlington. To lock that up was such a special story to read and hear about. I think more than anything, when a defining moment in your career is recognized by your competitors, that’s when it really means something.
Speaking of defining moments, we have a Denny Hamlin-Martinsville question for you. [Hamlin and Elliott were involved in a post-race altercation resulting from a wreck in the closing laps of the October race.] When you got out of the car and were hollering at him, it was perceived by media and fans as a coming-of-age moment. Do you buy that?
I can’t say that I’m a whole lot of a different person today or that week than I’ve been in the past number of years. I think that I was obviously very frustrated with the situation. I wasn’t happy about the way it ended. More just pissed off at the result and what could have been for us, more than anything, and I was expressing my displeasure.
Your dad drove the No. 9 in 446 Cup races. You’re switching from the No. 24 to the No. 9 in 2018. Why is driving the No. 9 car a big deal?
I have a lot of history with the number. It’s the number I started racing with. Obviously, all the roots from my dad’s racing. Me wanting to be the No. 9 didn’t come from the Coors days. It came from when he was racing for Ray Evernham in the early 2000s. I was just old enough to remember him racing. That’s why I liked the number. That’s why when I started racing go-karts, I wanted to run the number. It’s always kind of felt like home for me. I was fortunate to have it all the way through the XFINITY Series. It didn’t work out to have it at the beginning of my Cup career. I had gotten kind of used to 24, which has been an honor to have that number and try to perform and grow the win column. The 9 is just home for me. It’s a good fit. Anybody who has followed my career for any length of time knows that’s been my number.
Back in the day, when Ned Yost was the third base coach for the Braves, he also worked as the rehydration engineer for Dale Earnhardt Sr. on one of his championship seasons. You’re a big Braves fan. If you could hire a Brave, past or present, to be your rehydration engineer, who would it be, and why?
I used to love watching Chipper Jones play. That guy was the man. Definitely a hero in the baseball world. So that would be pretty cool.
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Kasey Kahne is gone from Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is gone. That makes you second in tenure at Hendrick, which is just bonkers. How does that change the dynamic of that team?
I don’t know that it does a ton. They have enough smart people and enough people in position to be able to hold up to the change. I think the guys they are bringing in (William Byron and Alex Bowman) are going to be able to do a good job. They both proved themselves as much as you could in the amount of time they’ve had to prove themselves. With the right pieces in the right places and the right support system for each of them, I don’t really see it changing our dynamic a whole lot.
What’s your best Dale Jr. story?
"Goodness. Man, I don’t know. We’ve had some good stories. It’s always kind of funny to me that every week when we sit down to have our competition meeting, which is typically very serious, not a lot of people have smiles on their faces. He’s the guy who cracks a joke to get everybody laughing in the room, which is important from time to time. I’m going to miss that for sure."
What is your favorite time of the season?
The fall is my favorite part of the year when it comes to the racing. Even in my short track days, fall and early winter typically meant big races, big events. Same goes for the NASCAR world, ending the season with the playoffs. That’s the most important time of the season when it comes to racing for a championship or trying to move on. I think it’s a special time of the year, a time when everybody’s got to buckle up and find the next little bit.