As is recent custom, members of the lordly Hendrick Motorsports team were the walk-off act at last week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup media-palooza.
With a month to go before the season-opening Daytona 500, some of the series’ more recognizable drivers lined up for inspection on stage. Joining them was one downy 20-year-old in a fire suit. Here is a sport built on running moonshine, and now they’re trotting out these competitors too young to even drink the legal stuff.
But try to pick out the impetuous, reckless youth from this lineup:
Behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. played a video of him jumping into the pool of his place in Key West — from the home’s second floor.
Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson spoke of his offseason spent hurtling down ski slopes. Kasey Kahne was fresh from running sprint cars in Australia, far from the comfortable embrace of his buttoned-down race team.
Meanwhile, Chase Elliott, the new kid, the fourth wheel of the Hendrick team, had little exotic to add. Why, his only adventure is being barely out of his teens and joining the premier stock-car circuit with one of its more successful teams, encased in one of its iconic cars. That should be enough for now.
Out went Jeff Gordon, squeezing his way into the Fox broadcast booth. Into the No. 24 car that Gordon turned into a trademark — just as Mantle did No. 7 and Jordan did No. 23 — slides Elliott. It is the circle of life, travelled at 190 mph.
Quietly, the kid did add one recent interest to his portfolio. Like his famous dad, Dawsonville’s champion driver Bill Elliott, he recently got his pilot’s license. But he is subjecting even that to the approval of his elders.
Questioned about how much he’ll take to the air now, Elliott said, “Ask Mr. (Rick) Hendrick about that, he’s the boss. If he wants me flying and he’s all right with it, I certainly will. It’s up to him.”
If the young Elliott can handle a car as well as he seems to handle the responsibilities of being a professional driver, then a name that has helped define racing in Georgia just might have renewed life.
No one can quite seem to believe that he is still 10 months away from his 21st birthday, not the way Elliott carries himself in the very public enterprise of NASCAR.
Car owner Hendrick said he keeps waiting for him to let loose and do something young and wild and crazy. Still waiting.
Teammate Johnson, who said he didn’t really get comfortable with the Sprint Cup life until winning the first of his championships, envies how composed Elliott is at this embryonic stage of his career.
“I had a lot of pressure on myself, and he does as well,” Johnson said.
“But I feel like, first of all his personality is calm and secondly he’s seen it all before. He’s grown up in this and around it. The tracks aren’t going to be brand new for him to look at. He knows the people in the industry. It’s a big deal coming to this level, and I’m happy for Chase to be as calm and as relaxed as he is.”
Certainly, there’s learning to do. The 2014 champion of the Triple-A Xfinity Series, Elliott ran in five Sprint Cup events last season. His average start was 24th. Average finish, 26th. Pretty average.
The mantra of 2016 is exactly the opposite of those preliminary results. “Wherever we start, try to improve and make the most of the opportunity,” he says.
And where better to learn the art of consistency than from the program that has produced 240 Sprint Cup victories and 11 car owner championships?
Not that he’s applying any more pressure or anything, but Hendrick said that this kid can win a race in his first full year, and even compete for a spot in the season-ending playoff chase.
And as we know, the kid never disagrees with his boss. “I think we have all the resources and the people amongst our circle to make it happen for sure. If I can do my part, we should have no excuse not to, really and truly,” he said.
So, here was the stupid question of the day for Elliott: So, did you grow up with any Gordon posters up in your room?
One that he handled with aplomb: “Obviously my dad was my hero, so I was never really OK with anybody else doing good other than him. I can’t say I had Gordon posters up in my room. I don’t think that would have flown too good.”
For every hot lap he runs henceforth Elliott will be lugging around not one, but two, weighty reputations.
There is, of course, that of the family name, Bill being the Hall of Famer and the winner of the “most popular driver” award for almost as long as he mashed a throttle. Just as Gordon Pirkle sounded the siren atop the Dawsonville Pool Room every time Awesome Bill from Dawsonville won a race, he’ll let it rip when Elliott’s boy does something noteworthy.
And tooling around in the No. 24 car, from which Gordon won four Series championships and waged his clash of culture and speed against the original Dale Earnhardt, hardly is the way to go unnoticed.
It probably would be have been easier if, while they were slapping another coat of paint on his new ride, they would have included a new number to the redecoration.
Never a chance of that.
“(Gordon) felt like that Hendrick Motorsports just would not be the same if that number was gone,” Elliott said. “For a guy who has been around and done everything that he has done to make that place what it is, how can you not have respect for that? I’m just very honored that he is OK with me driving that number.”
Elliott earned one other weighty endorsement here at the doorstep to his first Sprint Cup season.
“I think (the car) is in extremely good hands,” Gordon said. “I think the team is in extremely good hands to have him as a driver.”
One of Gordon’s great challenges in his new role as broadcaster will be to put some impartial distance between himself and the No. 24 car. His partner in the Fox booth, former champion Darrell Waltrip, weighs the prospects about as even-handedly as anyone.
“I think Chase is in some pretty good hands,” Waltrip said. “I think he’s going to have some ups and downs. He’s going to have some good weekends. He’s going to have some disastrous weekends. That’s what rookies do.”
This much at least the mature-beyond-his-years driver has seemed to figure out while all those extremes play out on the track: He won’t make the ride any bumpier than it has to be.
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