You don’t need me to tell you this, but Chase Elliott is kind of a big deal within NASCAR.
We are currently nine months into Elliott’s reign as the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion. We’re also in our third year with the 25-year-old as NASCAR’s reigning Most Popular Driver.
This is no small thing.
2021 marks the first time the defending champion of NASCAR’s top series was also the reigning MPD in more than 30 years.
The last time it occurred? Bill Elliott in 1989.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a lot of clout for a 25-year-old to have in any sport.
But notice how I phrased the first line of this column.
Elliott is a big deal within NASCAR.
Outside the confines of NASCAR’s bubble, the title of “face of the sport” (note: not “most popular”) belongs to Bubba Wallace.
Don’t believe me?
Morning Consult conducted a poll in late September (among 2,200 Americans) last year, when Wallace was still at Richard Petty Motorsports but had already been announced as the driver for Michael Jordan co-owned 23XI Racing in 2021.
That poll found that, in the wake of the 23XI news and a summer of social justice advocacy, 63% of American adults had heard of Wallace.
Elliott, one month away from winning his first championship, was seventh at 49%.
Watching a NASCAR Cup race broadcast this season — at least where I live, in northwest Arkansas — reflects this dynamic.
During a race, based just on the commercials, you’d never know Elliott was the defending series champion outside the obligatory “I Am NASCAR” ads.
Toyota runs multiple commercials including Wallace and Kyle Busch in them, while Wallace has also been the subject of DoorDash and Root Insurance ads. Last month featured the debut of a joint Door Dash / Pet Smart ad.
Further proof of how the Wallace-Elliott tandem works in 2021 is in what we’ll see on our TVs in the near future.
In April, Netflix announced a documentary series for 2022 covering Wallace in his first season with 23XI Racing.
In July, NBC Sports and Peacock announced a new documentary about Elliott, hosted by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and simply called Chase, would debut on the streaming platform this month.
Netflix has more broad reach as the largest streaming service with roughly 207 million subscribers. Chase, on the other hand, will stream on Peacock, a service connected to one of NASCAR’s TV partners that only has about 33 million users/subscribers.
NBC Sports has also announced a documentary series covering the 2021 Cup playoffs. That won’t debut until next year on USA Network, which is in only a couple million more households than NBCSN, a channel shutting down at the end of this year. That’s also after fans had been clamoring for a NASCAR Netflix series in the same vein as its Formula 1 Drive to Survive show. It’s better than nothing, but the doc is already guaranteed significantly less outreach than had it been produced by Netflix.
You can nitpick this lineup, but it’s perfectly fine. The more NASCAR projects that exists in mass media, the better.
It’s just a little disjointed. While it might not be a perfect comparison, consider if, in 1997, a documentary series about NASCAR played on CBS/TBS (hosted by Ken Squier, of course), while a doc about Jeff Gordon (representing Wallace’s broad appeal) was produced by ESPN and a Dale Earnhardt project (Elliott’s appeal to the root fanbase) showed up on TNN.
Meanwhile, Wallace’s name and brand continues to spread outside the NASCAR echo chamber. In addition to the Netflix news, last month Wallace and team co-owner Denny Hamlin appeared in the new music video for Post Malone’s single “Motley Crew.”
When was the last time a NASCAR driver not named Earnhardt, Gordon or Danica Patrick appeared in a music video that wasn’t connected to the country genre?
Meanwhile, Elliott has appropriately done what he can to spread the NASCAR gospel within the motorsports world.
Since December, here’s a sampling of the racing series Elliott has moonlighted in:
- Snowball Derby – Super Late Models
- IMSA – 24 Hours of Daytona
- USAC dirt midgets, including the Chili Bowl
“I’m really enjoying broadening my horizons and finding new challenges,” Elliott said during his dabble in IMSA. “Don’t take it out of context, it’s not that I have NASCAR figured out, because I don’t. It’s more to do something different and find something new. I’m still fairly young and at an age I can learn new things. You get older, it’s harder to learn new stuff.”
Appropriate, yes. A-List?
Is that a title Elliott wants? This comparison comes at a time when 25-year-old Elliott seems to be grappling with what it means for him to put his thumb on either side of the scale of a NASCAR argument.
In 2019, Elliott voiced doubts about his opinion’s worth amid debate on the Cup Series rule package.
“Frankly, I’ve tried to voice my opinion at different times or in those meetings that we’re supposed to voice our opinions in,” Elliott said, according to Autoweek. “And at the end of the day, I’ve come to the realization, and maybe this will change as time goes, but I just don’t think that my opinion matters to the people who make the rules.
“Really and truly, I’m not sure that it should, right? Why do the owners and the drivers and the teams even have a voice in some of that stuff? When it comes down to it, just make the rules and be done with it. We’re racing. Either you like it or you don’t.”
This philosophy came up again last month after Speedway Motorsports announced its plans for the reconfiguration of Atlanta Motor Speedway, Elliott’s home track.
But, at least publicly, Elliott didn’t.
“I was never personally asked [about it],” Elliott said at Atlanta. “But I also don’t really want to be asked. I don’t feel like, for my opinion, it’s not my job. Whatever it is, it is. At the end of the day, I’m not sure why it’s a big deal. If they want to repave and redo it, repave and redo it. It works for me.”
.@chaseelliott tells me he doesn’t feel like he should be approached regarding decisions like a reconfiguration.
— Noah Lewis (NASCAR) (@Noah_Lewis1) July 11, 2021
The peak of Elliott’s championship victory lap so far came not long after those comments.
On July 17, the younger Elliott participated in the season finale of the SRX Racing series at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, making him the only active Cup driver to compete in the series’ inaugural season. In front of the track’s largest audience in decades and 1.3 million viewers on CBS, Elliott battled his father and Tony Stewart before coming away with the victory.
Elliott said he “had a duty” to participate in the race as an advocate for NASCAR’s return to the facility where Cup hasn’t competed since 1984.
“It’s tied to my upbringing or path to NASCAR, so I think in that sense, it makes it special,” Elliott said, according to NBC Sports. He went on to address the extracurricular racing done this summer by him and Kyle Larson.
“We’re bringing the motorsports community together, and it’s a good thing,” he said. “We’re just being more practical right now. And in doing that, we’re able to use our platform here and grow motorsports elsewhere, which is a win for everybody across the board, and I hope everyone sees it that way.”
The popularity and recognizability of Elliott and Wallace shouldn’t be at odds with each other.
Elliott, as the spiritual successor to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and literal successor to Gordon, has intrinsic connections to the sport’s past that are magnified further by the connection to his father. He helps ground NASCAR to its roots.
Wallace, as the lone Black driver on the Cup circuit racing for one of the most popular athletes in the world, is a branch to a future with more broad and diverse appeal that NASCAR’s struggled to gain traction with since the mid-2000s.
They’re both vital for NASCAR’s stability and growth. Can they both find ways to utilize the national spotlight?
Follow @DanielMcFadin and check out and subscribe to his show “Dropping The Hammer with Daniel McFadin” on YouTube and in podcast form. This week’s guest will be Autoweek NASCAR reporter Matt Weaver.
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