Three floors above the braying commercial clutter of the great speedway’s infield, Chase Elliott earlier this week had an unobstructed window on the world he would, if he could, rule Sunday.
“Great view,” he said, sitting for an interview in a skybox directly over Daytona’s Victory Lane. “I’d rather be standing in it than looking at it.”
Sunday’s Daytona 500 begins Elliott’s fourth full season on NASCAR’s premier racing circuit. At only 23 years old, he already is an experienced hand on the wheel. He certainly acts like it, talks like it.
One day you’re writing about this rookie who is poised to inherit his father Bill’s Georgia-bred Hall of Fame racing legacy. The next, here he is with 113 starts already on the books, his first long-awaited race wins in hand (three of them last year) and the standing as 2018’s most accomplished guy in the Hendrick Racing garage (sorry, Jimmie Johnson). He’s not even the youngest driver in that noted stable anymore. That distinction belongs to William Byron, 21, who qualified for the pole in Sunday’s race and who has the unripe looks of someone who got there on a learner’s permit.
Metaphorically, too, Elliott’s view on his sport is a lofty one, and one that, truth be told, is a lap ahead of actual accomplishment. For he did, after all, finish sixth last season on the Monster Energy Cup points list, and considered that an unworthy ending.
Maybe you’ve seen his likeness staring down at you while riding the escalator up to baggage claim at Hartsfield-Jackson, joining the flashing images of other Atlanta-area dignitaries welcoming you to town. Being a pilot himself and not tethered to commercial travel, Elliott doesn’t often get to look at himself in that particular celebrity mirror. “Cool of them to put it up there,” he said. “Kind of strange, but I appreciate the recognition Atlanta accepting me.”
Fans last year voted him the circuit’s most popular driver, the same title his dad held in seeming perpetuity. Those who chart the sales of little souvenir die-cast cars announced that two versions of Elliott’s No. 9 car were the top two sellers in ’18.
Get ready for another young Elliott specialty: The understated, unassuming declaration, the kind of statement that makes a public relations executive swoon.
“I often wonder why me. I can certainly see why with my dad – his upbringing, what he had, where he ended up, the success he had, anybody can appreciate that, right?” he said, referring to his father’s grease-under-his-nails, sweat-stained, low-budget origin story in Dawsonville.
“From my perspective, I'm like, why me?” he said. “I think the votes are cool. The trophy is cool to have. But there's nothing cooler than seeing the hats and the T-shirts, people cheering for you on Sundays. That's part of something I'll never forget. If I never win again, that will be the coolest piece from 2018, from the fans' perspective.”
With his brief offseason Elliott for a second time found himself inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium watching his adopted college football team lose a big game to Alabama. He’d seen that particular Georgia movie before – backup quarterback comes on, shatters Bulldogs souls. “It was like déjà vu, I saw the writing on the wall,” he said of the SEC Championship game.
One risks various chambers of the heart being a Georgia fan with the Crimson Tide on the docket. One risks other body parts when devoting the best part of an offseason to throwing one’s self off a frozen Colorado mountain. For some athletes, skiing might be a risk banned by contract. But for those who drive at 190 mph or so over a nine-month span, it may be considered the safest part of the year.
So, yes, as a matter of fact, Elliott skied this winter, and won’t hesitate to ski again.
“You got to live life,” he said. “We live in a world in racing where the guy who’s comfortable being uncomfortable does well. If you sit in a box all the time and don’t do anything fun and don’t live life, you’re probably not going to do yourself any good. I refuse to be that way.”
Getting back to work, a first goal would be to run all 200 laps of the Daytona 500 gassed up and relatively dent-free. It’s really hard to win this race if you don’t.
His three previous 500s have come to wrenching endings, crashing in 2016 and ’18 and running out of gas just miles from a possible victory in 2017.
Elliott has shown little appetite for superspeedway racing (his victories last year were on a road course, Watkins Glen, and on the one-mile track at Dover and the mile-and-a-half track in Kansas). Average finish in six starts at Daytona: 28.7. Average Talladega finish: 16.2.
Fortunately, superspeedways make up but a small fraction of the Cup schedule. In fact, in this century, only Johnson has won a Daytona 500 and gone on to win a series championship that same year.
Thus, whatever happens here Sunday is no moratorium on Elliott taking that next step and competing for a Cup championship come November at Homestead.
By any analytical measure, to do so, he’ll need to show more consistency race over race. No coincidence the four finalists for the Cup last year also were the top four in laps led in 2018. Elliott finished 11th in that stat.
By his own measure, Elliott wants to take the boost he gained in breaking through and winning last year – “Definitely a weight off, a lot of relief,” he said – and combine it with some past flashes of steadiness. “Consistency-wise I thought we ran better at the end of 2017. If we could have the performance again like we had then and the confidence we have now, I think we can contend.”
The entire Hendricks team is looking for less weedy pasture this year. Johnson went through his first winless season since 2001, leaving it to Elliott to be the lone beauty mark in a landscape of warts.
Could he ever have imagined going into last season that he’d be the lone Hendrick driver to visit Victory Lane? “No, definitely not,” Elliott said.
“From an organizational standpoint you want all of us to win and to win often. From manufacturer’s standpoint as well. If we’re all running good we’re going to make each other better.”
So, let’s put 2019 and beyond in terms almost any fan back home can grasp:
In the race to the next Georgia-themed championship, who’s going to get there first, Elliott or his Bulldogs football team?
“Be nice if we could share one the same year, that would be pretty cool,” Elliott said. “I feel like Georgia is really close to being really good. Almost. I don’t know, but I’d be happy with both in a greedy world. But I’d be happy with either of the two, too.”
No need to ask if it were really his choice, which option he’d climb aboard and drive hard to the finish.
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