Did You Notice? … Chase Elliott’s bitter pill to swallow after losing the Daytona 500? Elliott, whose dry gas tank cost him the lead with three laps remaining, dropped from first to 14th at the finish. Leaving without an interview from a reporter, he issued a brief statement through Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet saying the end was “disappointing.”
“Just one of those things you can’t do anything about,” he said. “I’m happy with how the NAPA team performed, and we are going to learn from it.”
First off, I’m not sure what you can learn from in that type of situation. That race is NASCAR’s Super Bowl; every car in the lead pack was trying to stretch it on gas. Could Chase have really made it last three more laps by hanging out in back? I think it’s unlikely.
What’s becoming more common, though is the way in which this youngster has experienced close losses. It’s the third time in the last 11 races he has led 35 laps or more only to come up short.
Runner-up finisher Ryan Blaney, a close friend of Elliott’s was even asked about it after the 500.
“He’s very hard on himself,” Blaney said, admitting loyalties lied with Chase and the No. 24 car if he couldn’t win. “I mean, that’s the way he is. He wants to do so well. He does do a great job and everything. You see him, he should have won two or three races last year. Things didn’t work out. Not his fault. You get down on yourself.
“But he’s going to win tons of races in his career. He’s going to win a lot this year.”
Chase, along with Martin Truex Jr. said that no media approached them after a reporter claimed in the postrace presser he was upset.
Because they chose to stay on the end of pit road w the top finishing drivers. I was never approached by ANY person n media after waiting https://t.co/ysJ2nCXVKq
— Chase Elliott (@chaseelliott) February 27, 2017
However, coming so close only to fall short of Victory Lane can paralyze a driver, creating the sophomore slump we’ve seen so often in promising rookies. Kyle Larson had it; so did Kasey Kahne. Heck, Kevin Harvick had as many suspensions as race wins (one) in his second season.
It puts Elliott at a crossroads early in his career, heading to his hometown track of Atlanta Motor Speedway. But the son of a legend and Jeff Gordon’s replacement shouldn’t be so down on himself. 42 starts into his Cup career, the stat line compares favorably to plenty of the sport’s great drivers in the modern era.
CAREER STATS – 42 STARTS IN
Driver Wins Top 5 Top 10 Poles Laps Led
Chase Elliott 0 10 17 3 397
Jeff Gordon 1 10 15 2 326
Dale Earnhardt 3 18 25 4 879
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 2 4 7 2 443
Denny Hamlin 2 7 22 4 443
Kevin Harvick 2 7 18 0 379
Jimmie Johnson 3 7 24 4 838
Kasey Kahne 0 15 16 4 693
Matt Kenseth 1 5 13 0 162
Bobby Labonte 0 0 7 1 33
Kyle Larson 0 8 17 1 54
Joey Logano 1 4 8 0 37
Tony Stewart 3 15 26 2 1,223
As you can see, Elliott falls somewhere in the middle. He’s not lighting it up like Earnhardt (who benefitted from lesser competition in the late 1970s) but he’s far more consistent than Logano or Labonte.
Most importantly, Elliott is right on pace with Gordon, the man he’s trying to emulate. The only stat that separates them is Gordon’s victory, one that was earned – you guessed it – in his 42nd career start.
A few extra drops of gas, then, and Elliott would be ahead of the curve. He’s still just fine, in position to win many races and challenge for a championship as soon as this year.
The key is for those close to him, right now to serve as a reminder of that. It’s easy for young athletes to fall down the rabbit hole if they’re not careful.
Did You Notice? … How quickly NASCAR’s entry list dropped to under 40 cars? Despite a handful of quality underdog performances in the 500, Atlanta has just 39 cars attempting to make the grid. Gone are Beard Motorsports, Gaunt Brothers Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, all of whom are planning on running just the plate events.
In Beard’s case, his small No. 75 team got rewarded with an 11th-place run. But they know that, despite the strong start, continuing on to Atlanta, an intermediate oval where raw horsepower reigns supreme would leave them at a decided disadvantage. Why play around at places where you’re guaranteed to run 35th?
Therein lies NASCAR’s problem as it attempts to take the next step forward in recovery. Attracting new owners (and new manufacturers) will mean further tweaks to ensure the lower tier of teams can battle for top-10 finishes more frequently. This sport is an expensive proposition, and it’s easy to smell out the best way to spend your money is to do it the four times a year where you have an equal chance of winning the trophy and cashing in.
That number has got to be higher. Small teams thrived in the late ’90s because there were a handful of tracks they could focus their resources on to maximize success. Cale Yarborough’s team, for example, focused on the plate races with John Andretti because they knew it was a strength. Cutting costs for the rest of the schedule was worth it in order to have that one win.
NASCAR needs to create an environment where new owners feel they can take those chances and be successful. Where they won’t drown in debt if they want to test the water for 10-12 races and see how it goes.
But until those changes happen, we’ll see this pattern continue and have an unused spot or two on the grid. What a shame.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Keep an eye on Kasey Kahne this weekend. Atlanta is one of his best tracks and Kahne had a solid Speedweeks under the radar. Seventh place was his highest Daytona 500 finish since 2008 and the veteran knows he’s already got JR Motorsports newcomer William Byron breathing down his neck.
- Another guy to keep an eye on: Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing. Owner Barney Visser tried to deny it at Speedweeks but they showed all the signs of a team suffering through the growing pains of expansion.
- You need to look closer at the sport’s Daytona TV ratings to understand the optimism. Ratings among Men 18-34 were up 10 percent, tying a four-year high; ratings among Adults 18-34 were up 13 percent. The fan base, like in last year’s Chase showed signs of trending younger and that’s a necessary evolution for what’s been an aging sport.
- One interesting side note to this new system you may not have noticed yet: first place won’t always get the most points. Take the 500 as an example. Kurt Busch, who led only one lap, scored a total of eight bonus points in the first two stages. That left him with 48 points total. Blaney, who was third and 10th in the first two stages, earned 44. Had the sophomore been as high as third and fifth, he would have outpointed Busch despite failing to win the race for this first time in his Cup career.
Did you miss my column with Five Major Storylines To Follow After Daytona? Click here to access it at Athlon Sports.