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NASCAR fans who have been around for a while know all about “Awesome Bill” Elliott from Dawsonville, but this weekend, it’s his son Chase Elliott that hopes to steal the headlines when the Camping World Truck Series gets back in action at Martinsville Speedway. Chase was just six years old when he sat atop the pit box at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as his father won the 2002 Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR’s most coveted victories.
Fast forward to today, and the now 17-year-old finds himself able to take advantage of a new rule change implemented by NASCAR for this season. It’s a change in the minimum competition age, from 18 to 16, for a select number of tracks — those shorter than 1.1 miles and road courses — that allows some of the many talented drivers moving quickly through the ranks for a shot at the big leagues.
This weekend, Elliott makes his Truck Series debut in the first of nine expected starts for Hendrick Motorsports, the team he’s been aligned with as a development driver since 2011. He’ll pilot the No. 94 Aaron’s Dream Machine / HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, and while earning a spot in the lineup is no guarantee, the likelihood of him missing the field is slim with HMS standing behind him.
“Chase, to me, his pedigree and the way he handles himself, his professionalism really attracted me as much as watching him run those Late Models,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “When you can run wheel-to-wheel with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin and actually beat them, or run 30 laps with Kyle and hold your own and you’re 15 or 14 years old, you’ve got a lot ahead of you.
“Knowing the Elliott name and how well (his parents) Cindy and Bill have raised him, and how neat and sharp and polite and all he is, he gets in the race car and drives the roof off of it. If I had to write a prescription for what I want, it would be just that.”
Chase sat down with Frontstretch.com’s Beth Lunkenheimer to talk about his passion for racing, his upcoming debut, his heroes on the race track and so much more. As the youngest driver to ever win the Snowball Derby and the K&N Pro Series East Most Popular Driver Award in 2011, it’s clear that the 17-year-old has quite a career ahead of him.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch.com: I know you got your passion for racing starting back at the Brickyard, watching your dad win. Was that the only thing that drove you to a racing career, or was there more to it?
Chase Elliott: I think it was just the whole idea of being around the race track and seeing what it was all about. Being around when dad was having his success, back in the 2001 to 2002 time frame, had me really excited about it. I remember just very, very little about it. I think being around it and growing up around the sport makes you want to be a part of it. And as I got older, I realized it was something that I wanted to go do and started to pursue it.
Lunkenheimer: I know you’re still very young, but what is the most important win you’ve gotten in your career thus far?
Elliott: I think the Snowball Derby is going to be the top one at this point. That’s just such a big race. Back right when I got the win, that race is so hard to even put yourself into position to win. Just trying to make it to the end for the win is a big challenge — that race is just so wild — much less actually getting to Victory Lane. Hopefully, we can do that again sometime soon and hopefully, we can do it multiple times.
But that’s not the only one. I had a win in the K&N Pro Series East last year that was a big one as well. That was a big confidence booster for myself and my team. We had been really fast at a lot of places; it’s easy to say that when you don’t back it up with wins. But when we got to Iowa, we had a good weekend and ended up in Victory Lane. That was a big, big weekend for us.
Lunkenheimer: Now, how hard is it to shake off “oh, you’re Bill Elliott’s kid.” How do you build your own name in racing?
Elliott: A lot of people ask me that. The best way I can put it is that I’m trying to make a name for myself. My dad has obviously had a ton of success in the sport. I feel like if he was given the right opportunity, he could still do that today. But the best thing I can say is that I’m not him and he’s not me. I’m going to go out there and do my best, and that’s all I can ask for.
Lunkenheimer: Who’s been the biggest person you’ve looked up to besides your dad in your racing career?
Elliott: One guy I’ve always respected since I was really little was Tony Stewart and what he’s been able to accomplish. As I got older, and was able to understand a little bit more, I still have a lot of respect for Tony. Kasey Kahne is another one — I thought that was pretty cool how he took over the No. 9 car when dad got out of it when he left Evernham Motorsports. I think another guy that’s a big hero of mine is Jimmie Johnson. It’s weird to be on the same team with him now and be able to call him up for advice. He’s obviously had a lot of success in the sport in such a short amount of time. If you look back, he hasn’t been around that long, and the things he’s done in just a short number of years is very, very impressive. And then to stay one of the dominant people in the sport is tough, too — but he’s been able to do that.
Lunkenheimer: What’s the most important advice that Jimmie has given you?
Elliott: I don’t know that it’s really one thing that I can take. Obviously, if we’re going to a racetrack, I can try to ask for some advice if we’re going to some track that the Cup guys race at. It’s just a few small things here or there.
Lunkenheimer: This is the first year you’ve actually had a chance to get into the Truck Series since the age change. What were your thoughts when NASCAR announced the age reduction that would allow you to run?
Elliott: It was a pretty big announcement for me. Honestly, we were at a point where I was kind of stuck. I was fortunate enough with sponsors like Aaron’s to be able to progress and run a lot of late model races at a very young age when I was 13, 14 years old. And then, the door opened to run the K&N Pro Series back when I was 15, which was phenomenal, and that gave me a lot more experience that I normally wouldn’t have gotten without the age change there. And I feel like NASCAR bumping that down has only helped themselves because there are so many young guys out there right now that are beyond capable of going out and racing on these tracks that K&N and the Trucks race at. Unfortunately, it was my understanding that it was the insurance policies that kept them from doing that sooner.
For them to back off on a couple of those age limits, it opens up a lot of doors for a lot of different people, including myself. Like I was saying, I was at a point where I was stuck where we were going to run K&N again this year and it would be the third year. There’s nothing wrong with that, and we would obviously go out and try to win as many races as possible, but it would be great to try to get another step up. And that’s why, when the door opened to go run a few of these truck races, it really helped me because I feel like it’s going to be a huge challenge. We want to go win some races there. We have a big year ahead of us and I’m ready to get started.
Lunkenheimer: You tested at Martinsville a couple weeks ago with a handful of other Truck Series drivers. Did you learn anything during that test that will be useful for the race this weekend?
Elliott: Oh yeah. That was a big test for us and for me—it was my second time in the truck. Obviously the next time I’ll get in there is when we’ll go back for the race. We picked up a lot of things, and I picked up a lot of things on the driving side. On the data side, we picked up a lot of information there. I think moving back, if we can put our heads together and try to give ourselves an advatage to show up with for the race.
Lunkenheimer: I know you have yet to make your truck Series debut, but has there been talk about running full time in the series once you’re elgible to run the entire schedule?
Elliott: That’s still up in the air, and for me I think it’s easy to get ahead of yourself and look at what could happen. But right now, we’ve just got to focus on what’s going on right now. My main focus is getting to Martinsville and trying to win that race and trying to do the same thign again the week after at Rockingham. I’m just trying to focus on the here and now and make the most of it.
Lunkenheimer: When you’re not racing, what do you like to do to kill some time?
Elliott: Whatever it takes. A lot of times I’d hang out at the shop when were doing more short track racing, because there’s a lot more to do there. Now, we’re not racing as much out of our shop back at home, but when we do go there, I’m helping the guys out. Other than that, I like riding dirt bikes, working out and whatever it may be. I even look at information from a test to try to better myself when I get to the race track.
Lunkenheimer: I’ve gathered from your Twitter feed that you enjoy watching quite a bit of sports. What’s your favorite?
Elliott: I’m a huge Braves fan. I’ve always been a huge Braves fan since I was really little. I’ve always loved to watch baseball. I feel like racing is at the top of the board and baseball is P2 for me. I always enjoyed watching it, especially growing up around the Braves when I was little and then moving back to Georgia. Just being in that atmosphere is really cool. Another one is the Georgia Bulldogs—I’m a big Bulldogs fan. Those are my two teams that I’m really into. I’m a little bit of a Falcons guy; I pull for the home team when I can, but I’m not a huge Falcons fan. I definitely don’t mind watching them, though.
Lunkenheimer: I know you’ve already got a pretty strong fan following. What’s the strangest thing a fan has ever asked you to sign?
Elliott: The strangest thing? I don’t know — there have been a lot of requests. I’ve signed a few phones, which I thought was pretty risky. I don’t know that I’d want my name on a phone, but whatever it takes, I guess. I think I’ve signed a pair of sunglasses once — that was a little weird. There’s a bunch of things that I’m sure I’m leaving out, but the phone is always a bit of a surprise whenever I see that.
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