Chase Elliott is just 20 years old, but he still has fewer Sprint Cup starts — 19 –than his age. He’s replaced one of the best stock car drivers of this era in Jeff Gordon, comes packaged with the weight of his last name (see: Awesome Bill) and never drove a NASCAR race of any kind at Pocono Raceway until this weekend.
So much to learn on paper. All that pressure built around him. Yet for the second time in nearly a month running at NASCAR’s highest level, it was Elliott who nearly wound up a winner.
Leading a race-high 51 laps Monday, it was the rookie on Hendrick Motorsports who had the fastest car and the edge over veteran teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. down the stretch. If not for the sport’s tricky aerodynamics and one awkward mistake through the tunnel turn, creating an opening for Kurt Busch to slip by both men on the race’s final restart, Elliott would have written his name in the record books.
“I felt like I made a big mistake there,” he said, presenting himself like a 40-year-old veteran instead of a guy who can’t drink legally yet. “It gave Kurt (Busch) a big run. I feel like we had a car that could do it today.”
Just like he had a car that could do it at Dover three weeks ago, where Elliott became a surprise contender, battling Matt Kenseth and Kyle Larson down the stretch. Charging as high as second in that one, he ultimately came up short, but the controlled aggression raised eyebrows as to how quickly this kid is coming up to speed.
“The team is doing an amazing job,” Earnhardt said after ending the day in second. “They were always fast with Jeff (Gordon), and I think the transition couldn’t have been better. Jeff really set that team up for the transition and all that where it’s so smooth. Just a perfect storm situation for Chase, and he’s doing a great job. He’s become a great teammate.”
Certainly, Elliott, after two years of XFINITY seasoning (plus one championship), has been brought along at the right speed with an owner, Rick Hendrick, who knows a thing or two about driver development. But it’s easy to forget that while Gordon, a certain future Hall of Famer, was running well at the end of last season, the No. 24 team appeared to run like a roller coaster until the Chase. Take away a fall win at Martinsville Speedway, Gordon’s final triumph, and the team had just four other top-5 finishes in 36 starts. Elliott, in just 14 races running with the team, has already matched that.
Those five top-5 finishes also match some rookie records, tying Dale Earnhardt (1979) and Shorty Rollins (1958) for the most at this point in a driver’s first full season. It’s a level of consistency up front that even trumped teammate Jimmie Johnson (four top 5s) at this stage of the game; keep in mind Johnson nearly won a championship in his first full year.
The fact Elliott is doing it with an HMS program that’s A) a step behind Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas and B) with a shopmate in Kasey Kahne, who’s not even Chase-eligible at this stage, is all the more impressive. After a ho-hum five-race debut last season in which Elliott didn’t score a single top-15 finish, he’s come out swinging the second he stepped in a car at Daytona International Speedway, winning the pole for this year’s Daytona 500 and never looking back. Two early crashes in the first three races did nothing to kill off confidence; Elliott has taken the next 11 races and finished no worse than 20th. Only once during that stretch has he even dipped lower than 12th.
“I don’t think you get hired by a team like that unless you’re good,” Earnhardt added. “I didn’t expect him to struggle.”
But did anyone expect the stats we’ve seen thus far? The 10 top-10 finishes match Johnson for the most by a rookie through 14 races in the modern era. Eleven lead-lap finishes leaves him sixth overall; an average start of 12.2 is 10th best and includes two poles. Overall, his percentage of running inside the top 10 (52.6 percent of career starts) compares favorably with replacement Gordon (59.5 percent) and several other Hall of Fame-caliber drivers. Personality-wise, he’s squeaky clean, the HMS mold that’s perfect for both the corporate boardroom and the post-race interviews that are earning him more fans by the minute.
“We will take it and move on,” he said when pressed about Monday’s performance. “Just try to be aware of the mistakes I made having a chance there at the end and not getting it done. We certainly had I feel like one of our best days of the year.”
Live and learn; crew chiefs everywhere are swooning right now. Peers like three-time champ Tony Stewart, whose Pocono mistake-turned-wreck left him incensed and avoiding the media at age 45, still struggle to be the perfect blend of positive and self-aware. Year one feels like year 10 for Elliott, and it’s easy to forget there’s a prodigy here set to race for decades.
Sure, there could be plenty of pitfalls ahead. We never know what’s going to happen to us on any given day. But it certainly seems like there’s a new sheriff in town at the No. 24, and the only place where he appears to be headed, repeatedly, is Victory Lane. I hope Mama Elliott is clearing some room on the trophy shelf.
“I certainly wouldn’t complain if I was battling for wins for the next 10 years,” Elliott said after Dover. “It would be great on my watch. I’d love to be in the mix for wins moving forward.”
He already is.