Chase Elliott leaned against the cabinet in his gleaming hauler, knees slightly bent, hands at his sides. He wore jeans, sneakers and a Napa Auto Parts hoodie. His sunglasses were perched upside down on his Napa baseball hat, and a line of black scruff outlined his chin. His dad, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, and mom, Cindy, sat in the hauler’s lounge. Members of his crew swirled in and out, preparing for Elliott’s Sprint Cup Series debut at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday.
He was in the eye of the storm, yet he remained perfectly calm. The biggest race of his life was three hours away, and Elliott exuded all the angst of a Sunday afternoon walk in the park. The closest thing he said or did to suggest he was in any way nervous was to confess that he woke up before his alarm went off, but considering it was set for 8 or 8:30, well, that ain’t exactly freaking out. The pressure he felt over his debut had ended when he successfully qualified for the race on Friday.
That left Sunday for gaining experience, with a goal of finishing every lap. The race would be less than an hour old before even those modest aspirations were dented like so much sheet metal. But for now, the son was still shining. “I feel good,” he says. “I’m ready to get going and see what happens.”
With Elliott’s debut the most-hyped in recent NASCAR memory, the rest of the sport was ready, too. The fresh-faced kid who has been around garages his whole life – all 19 years, four months and three days of it – had arrived at its elite level.
As race time neared, Elliott stood outside his car, talking with his parents and team owner Rick Hendrick, racing royalty arm-in-arm with racing royalty. It’s a scenario that seems inevitable now, but it was unlikely five years ago.
Hendrick Motorsports gave up signing developmental drivers in the 2000s, as the investment of time and money too often yielded nothing but bruised egos and rumpled race cars. But Chase Elliott’s combination of speed and control on the track – and ironed-shirt, look-you-in-the-eye, yes-sir, no-sir maturity off of it – prompted Hendrick to break from tradition and sign Elliott in 2011, when he was just 15.
The whispers of Elliott’s pending NASCAR stardom started as he progressed through lower-level stock car series. Those whispers turned to shouts in the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series last year, when Elliott won two races before he graduated from high school and took home the championship (the youngest ever to do so), rookie of the year and most popular driver awards. He’s the only driver to win all three in one season at any NASCAR level.
Elliott’s appeal starts with the fact his dad is Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, the winner of NASCAR’s most popular driver award a record 16 times. (Side note: Chase’s given name is William Clyde Elliott II, but a family friend said he didn’t look like a Bill, dubbed him Chase, and it stuck.) But the pedigree only makes people pay attention. His performance makes him popular. In his first 47 races combined in the trucks and Xfinity series, Elliott finished on the lead lap 44 times, missing laps only because of wrecks.
Chase looks like his mom, Cindy, who met Bill when she was the photo editor for NASCAR Illustrated. But his driving and preternatural calm are pure daddy. “He’s the luckiest kid in the world – he’s got his daddy’s talent and his mama’s looks,” says Ray Evernham, owner of one of the teams Bill Elliott drove for and Jeff Gordon’s former crew chief.
Evernham, too, mingled with Hendrick and the Elliotts under the blue southern Virginia sky on Sunday. Finally Chase Elliott strapped into the car and pulled onto the track in the No. 25 Chevy for the first of five races he’ll enter this season before joining the Sprint Cup series full time next year. “Enjoy today,” Hendrick tells Chase over the team radio. “This is the first of about 900 races.”
Elliott has to hope there won’t be many that go worse.
Elliott’s debut marked the culmination of a whirlwind three months in which Elliott changed from NASCAR prospect waiting for his chance to a guy getting it.
The call came at 7 a.m. on a Thursday in January. Chase Elliott was doing what any self-respecting 19 year old would be doing at 7 a.m. on a Thursday in January: He was sleeping. He woke up quickly at the sound of Hendrick’s voice. Hendrick told him that in a few hours, four-time champion Jeff Gordon was going to announce that 2015 would be his last season as a driver. Hendrick told Elliott that he wanted him to replace Gordon next season. “That’s a heck of a phone call to wake up to,” Elliott says. “Just a crazy kind of morning.”
This news was surprising in that it came at 7 a.m. on a Thursday in January. But Gordon’s retirement had been a possibility for several years, and after his historically great rookie season in the Nationwide Series, Elliott had become the obvious choice to replace Gordon.
Elliott lives with his parents in Dawsonville, Georgia. After the phone call from Hendrick, he was too excited to go back to sleep. But he had to play it cool – Hendrick had asked him to keep the news secret. His behavior was a tick off that day, and just as his mom started to wonder what was going on, her phone started ringing as the news about Gordon trickled out. “Chase,” Cindy Elliott said to him, “do you have something to tell me?”
Eventually, he told her what Hendrick had asked him not to tell. That poker-faced, nothing-fazes-him attitude exists when he’s driving, too, and it’s perhaps the biggest reason insiders in the sport predict success for him. “He knows exactly what’s coming around every corner, outside the car as much as inside the car,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who owns the car Elliott drives in the Xfinity Series and calls him the new Elvis. “I think that’s why he doesn’t get shook up all that well. He kind of sees all this stuff coming.”
Says Cindy Elliott: “The biggest thing I admire about (Chase’s and Bill’s) personalities is I have never seen either one of them be so overwhelmed and excited about the achievements they’ve been able to make that they aren’t focused on what that next step is. They never revel in it for more than the moment.”
For now, Elliott is focused on defending his Xfinity Series championship and trying to qualify for the remaining four races on his Sprint Cup schedule. But when he thinks about next year, he has a hard time wrapping his brain around the ride that waits him: Gordon’s No. 24 Chevy, one of the most iconic numbers and cars in NASCAR history.
“It’s going to be very, very weird to, first off, not see Jeff in a Cup race come Daytona next year,” Elliott says. “But to be driving that car, I think it’s going to be more weird than anything. But also very exciting.”
In trying to balance today against tomorrow, Elliott faces the same problem NASCAR always faces – how to be happy and focused on his current position without forgetting those 900 starts he’ll be making. For as long as NASCAR has been mainstream, it has been pulled taut across two dueling, ever-present tensions. How does a sport that so loves its history stay devoted to it while also evolving enough to stay afloat in an ever-swirling sports ocean?
Against that backdrop, Elliott occupies a common position in the NASCAR world. Like Earnhardt Jr., Richard and Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Davey Allison before him, he is connected to old-school NASCAR fans through his dad. Yet he wasn’t alive for his dad’s dominant years, and there’s little old school about him. He is polite and well mannered, though not voluble. He’s more comfortable talking about the Atlanta Braves and Georgia Bulldogs than himself. He has angered only one fellow driver, Ty Dillon, in his year-plus of racing full time in NASCAR.
Yet so excited is the NASCAR world to embrace Elliott that Darlington Raceway signed him to join his father in a promotion for this year’s Labor Day weekend race before he was even scheduled to be in it. That’s due in large part to his head-turning victory in the Nationwide Series there last season, when he charged from sixth with two laps left to win the race.
As Elliott barreled by Elliott Sadler for the lead on the last lap, Chip Wile, the president of Darlington, stood in victory lane preparing for the post-race celebration. He couldn’t see the track or any TV screens, so he didn’t know what was happening in the race. But he heard the crowd roar and wondered what that was all about. Nationwide crowds weren’t usually that loud. Wile couldn’t believe it when Elliott pulled his blue No. 9 Chevy into victory lane. Where’d he come from?
The next day, in the Sprint Cup Series race, Dale Jr. finished second and had an opportunity to win – and Wile says the cheering for Elliott was comparable to the cheering for Junior. “It was unbelievable,” he says. “The crowd went nuts when he made that pass.”
In the days before Sunday’s debut, Elliott peppered teammates Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who have won eight races each at Martinsville, with questions about how to navigate the track. He also spent hours watching the in-car camera view of several of their Martinsville races. Elliott does this before most races, always choosing whichever drivers are best at that particular track. Sometimes he watches on YouTube; in this case he had DVDs. He watched to study the line Gordon and Johnson ran. He also listened for when they accelerated and braked, both of which are key at Martinsville, the shortest and tightest track in NASCAR.
That prepared him for group qualifying on Friday. While he was calm on Sunday, he was less so on Friday. First, the weather made him anxious. Rain threatened to wash out qualifying, which would have meant he missed the race because there were more drivers registered than there were spots, and he didn’t have any points to secure his position. He reloaded Weather.com every 20 minutes, checking to see if the biggest race of his life would have to wait.
The rain finally stopped, and Elliott qualified 27th. He was relieved to make it but annoyed with himself for being happy to start so far back (his average starting position in a season-plus in the Xfinity Series is 9.1). “It wasn’t the prettiest thing,” he says, “but we got in the show.”
The fact Elliott debuted Sunday and will become a full-time driver just a few months after his 20th birthday says a lot about the confidence Hendrick has in him. So, too, does his schedule this season. He will attempt to enter four more races – at Richmond, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and the Southern 500 at Darlington. Martinsville, Indy and Darlington rank as the three toughest ovals on the circuit. The Coca-Cola 600 is the most grueling event of the season, 20 percent longer than the next longest race. Only Richmond would be considered “easy,” and even that is a short track, where trouble looms in every turn.
Hendrick Motorsports officials chose the tracks to challenge Elliott, and to get his first races at tough tracks out of the way before Elliott runs the full season next year.
They succeeded in that on Sunday. Early on, Elliott found himself in a sheet-metal accordion, with damage on the front and back of his car. “They just stacked up, stopped, and I didn’t,” he would say later. By lap 71, a strip of metal dangled off of the back of his car, the right side of his hood bowed skyward, he lost his power steering and fluid poured from his car onto the track. He took his Chevy behind the wall for repairs, and with that any chance he had of completing every lap was gone.
He finished 38th, 73 laps down. After starting the race in the spotlight, he spent the bulk of it trying to stay out of the leaders’ way. He’ll have about 899 chances to improve on that.