Chase Elliott racked up yet another top 5 on this past Sunday.
That’s a statement you’d expect to hear about Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch or Joey Logano. Perhaps Martin Truex Jr. even. But a rookie like Elliott? Not even the most bullish Hendrick Motorsports fan would have expected to say that this early in the season.
After all, rookies are expected to have growing pains. Rare is it a driver for a driver like Busch or Jimmie Johnson to win in their rookie seasons. And after Elliott’s first five forays in the Cup series in 2015 – in which he scored a handful of top 20s but was also involved in multiple incidents at Martinsville and Darlington – most would say that Elliott should expect a solid year but nothing more.
But here we are, 15 races into the season and Elliott sits sixth in points, with 11 top-10 finishes and six top 5s, both among the top four in both categories. To put this in perspective, his predecessor in the No. 24, Jeff Gordon, had only five top 5s through 36 races last season. It seems obvious that Elliott is a worthy successor to the future Hall-of-Famer.
But can he win the Sprint Cup in his rookie season? It’s a legitimate question. He’s running up front in nearly every race, mixing it up with Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth for the wins. And while he has yet to visit victory lane, it seems as though it’s only a matter of time before the siren in Dawsonville blares.
The question is: Can the No. 24 really return to the top of the Cup ranks so soon after Gordon’s retirement?
IT’S DEFINITELY POSSIBLE
If you told me that Elliott would be this good this fast, I wouldn’t have believed you. Sure, I thought he could knock out some top 10s early but not this many. He only trails Harvick and Kurt Busch in that category. I would never have guessed he’d sit sixth in points, nor would I have expected him to lead nearly a third of the laps at Pocono, a track notoriously tough on rookies and one that he’d only seen action at in an ARCA race.
But after 15 races, I’m a firm believer that Elliott might actually win the Cup in his rookie year. I know, I know, history is against him as no Cup rookie has ever won the title, but Elliott has been rewriting history his whole NASCAR career. He was the first rookie to win a national title in NASCAR in 2014, winning the XFINITY championship with a three-win season. Then, he won the pole for this year’s Daytona 500, becoming the youngest driver to sit first on the grid in NASCAR’s biggest race.
His six top 5s through 15 races set a new record for rookies, beating Dale Earnhardt’s record from 1979. And this past weekend, Elliott was part of the youngest podium in Cup history along with Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. So the history argument doesn’t hold much weight. Elliott could be just the guy to rewrite this piece of NASCAR history too.
But that’s just conjecture. Let’s look at some stats. Elliott’s average finish of 11.27 is a shade better than teammate Johnson’s average during the same span of his rookie year in 2002. It’s also about seven spots better than Kyle Busch and nine better than Brian Vickers did in their rookie seasons – both driving HMS equipment, no less.
It’s also better than the numbers put up by drivers in some of the other more remarkable rookie seasons over the past 18 years: Larson (13.87), Logano (22.8), Kasey Kahne (16.27), Kenseth (16.07) and Tony Stewart (12.07).
The general consensus is that drivers tend to do better in the back half of their first season. The reasoning is they now have the experience and track time to perform better than they did in the first half. Among the eight drivers we’re taking a look at, that trend occurred half the time. Logano, Stewart, Kahne and Larson all did better the second half of the season, while Johnson, Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Vickers all did worse.
Notice that three of the drivers that did worse are HMS drivers. So how can Elliott buck that trend and join the former list? After all, being on the right side of this statistic is crucial to Elliott’s title hopes, as the Chase puts a premium on great finishes should a driver not win during a round. Since Elliott has already surpassed the other eight in every category but wins through 15 races, he has the foundation to continue his upward climb to Cup superstardom. All he needs is to continue his consistent numbers.
With the Chase resetting points and giving Elliott a clean slate for the final 10 races, as long as he can keep up his current pace he’ll be a contender. If he does better the back half of the season, all the better. Remember, he only has two finishes outside of the top 20 this season and only three outside the top 12 – and two of those finishes were due to accidents.
Chase Elliott is the real deal and when Homestead comes, expect him to be in the title conversation.
THESE THINGS TAKE TIME
Sure, Elliott has the potential to make it to Homestead and win the championship, but realistically it won’t come in 2016. What a story it would make though—taking over the ride of Jeff Gordon and in his rookie campaign and win the championship.
The 20-year-old was in a similar situation in his rookie year of the XFINITY Series. The year he won the title, however, that series did not feature a Chase format, and this Chase format is so unpredictable.
Looking at the statistics, Elliott is by far having the best season at Hendrick Motorsports. Currently, he’s in the midst of six consecutive top-10 finishes with a runner-up result in the last outing at Michigan.
Elliott sits sixth overall in the championship standings, 75 markers out of the lead and the best of the Hendrick group. He may not have the two wins that his teammate Jimmie Johnson has, but consistency has gotten the No. 24 team to this point. He’s on the brink of winning any race.
So what will hold them back?
It seems like every week Elliott will get out of his racecar and look back at what he could have done better, even if he finished second or third and didn’t have the best racecar. Every driver does this, but at such a young age, he seems a little harder on himself than most drivers, especially being a rookie.
Expectations were high when Elliott took over the helm of the No. 24 car. More times than not this season, he’s delivered. He’s on pace to set the modern era record of top five and top-10 finishes, which is held by Ryan Newman back in 2002 when the now veteran driver posted 14 top 5s and 22 top 10s.
This is all good and dandy, but the team needs to put that car in Victory Lane. Elliott doesn’t want to be compared to the rookie season that Kyle Larson had, where almost wasn’t enough. Two years later and the driver of the No. 42 car is still looking for his first victory.
Comparing HMS equipment to that of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates might not be the right thing to do, but every time a victory slips away, it eats at the Georgia native.
Let’s face it, Elliott should have won Pocono. He dominated the middle part of that race leading a career-high 51 laps, but a battle with teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. could have cost the rookie his first triumph when Kurt Busch got by for the victory.
At Michigan, the No. 24 car was out front for 35 laps late in the race, before Joey Logano got by for the winning pass, again on a restart. Finishing the deal has to be getting hard for the rookie to handle.
With that said, it will not be surprising to see Elliott win multiple times leading up to the Chase. However, it’s hard to consider him a championship threat in this point’s system until he visits Victory Lane. Once one victory comes, there will be a bunch of others to follow.
Another thing to think about is the No. 24 team, peaking to early? The team has been so good in 2016, while other organizations struggle. That could come back to bite them before they get a checkered flag.
It’s not often that you see a rookie do what Elliott is doing. But those expectations were set at a high standard. He’s lived up to them, but to win a championship a team must win. In the two seasons that this Chase format has been in play, the team that won the race, won the championship as the second-place finisher was also in the championship battle. By the looks of it, that’s what it will take again this season.
With the start of the season that Joe Gibbs Racing has had, it’s hard to imagine at least one or two of their drivers in the final round. Add in the consistency of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch from Stewart-Haas Racing and the drive from the teammates at Team Penske, it will be hard to be in the championship race.
Those three organizations currently have a better chance at securing a championship than Elliott and all of Hendrick Motorsports. That could change as HMS has struggled so far this season with the exception of Elliott.
That No. 24 team has experience in the championship race with Jeff Gordon last season, finishing third in the standings. If Elliott can get there, watch out. But in his first season, consider it doubtful.
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