Elliott begins second season in familiar position — on Daytona 500 pole

Chase Elliott walks tall in Daytona in advance of qualifying for the 500. (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott walks tall in Daytona in advance of qualifying for the 500. (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

The Daytona 500 pole appears to be his in perpetuity, at least until someone brings a car that can honestly argue the point.

He is part of a race team that is a more like a stable of thoroughbreds. He drives a car whose number, 24, is burned into the brain of racing fans as surely as their own birth dates. He already ranks top four in merchandise sales among his logo-laden brethren. With little ceremony he earlier this month ripped the tell-tale yellow stripe from the bumper of that car, signifying the official end of his rookie apprenticeship. Then for good measure went out Thursday night and won one of the twin 125 qualifying races on this monster track.

No, he didn’t actually win a race in 2016, but Chase Elliott, 21, is still very much being fitted for the role of “The Future of his Sport.”

Maybe one of the most encouraging signs of all is that one of NASCAR’s cool kids was quite familiar with the name Gober Sosebee.

The future knows whence he came.

“Oh, Gober Sosebee is a very recognized name in Dawsonville, that’s for sure,” he answered quickly Friday, when tested with the mention of the driver who came down from the North Georgia mountains in 1949 and won the pole for this race when it was run on hard-packed beach sand. His father wears a connection to that same place in the form of one of the all-time sports nicknames — Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. And so does Chase, somewhere deep in his DNA.

With each generation it gets harder and harder to maintain that quaint connection. But the young Elliott will attempt it, upon request.

“I think it’s cool,” he said. “A lot of people overlook the history that Dawsonville has in racing. Running moonshine back in the day. That was a big deal. Those guys were a lot of the start of NASCAR and racing, in a lot of ways those were the roots for some drivers. I think it means a lot, for sure.”

The 2017 Daytona 500 pole-sitter enters his second season looking to take all that hard-won experience of 2016 and build a better driver.

Nothing’s guaranteed. When Elliott thinks about moving on to Year 2, he doesn’t assume that experience leads automatically to improvement. He’s more likely to recall his time in the Triple-A division when he won a championship his first year on what is now the Xfinity series as a rookie (2014, the same year he graduated from King’s Ridge Christian in Alpharetta), but backed up to second in the standings the following year.

“It will put you in your place when you think you have some things figured out and you might be confident in some things you have going on from the team side,” he said. “The biggest thing I think about is how grounded that keeps you when you think you might be on the cusp of figuring something out, but you really don’t.”

A good step in the right direction would be leaving this place in one piece. Winning the pole for the 500 last year, too, Elliott exploded into public view, only to lose it 45 miles into the race, ruining a perfectly good car as well as a large swath of infield grass in the crash. He also wrecked in the summer race at Daytona, that time halfway through the program.

Between accidents last year, he did everything but win.

His 10 top-five finishes were the most by a rookie in more than a decade. He became only the third rookie to qualify for the season-ending championship chase since its inception in 2004. He stuttered on some late-race restarts twice at Michigan — where he was runner-up both times — or he would have claimed his first checkered flag by now.

Some highly placed sources seem to think it won’t be long before Elliott populates that vacant win column.

“He learned a couple tough lessons last year being so close to victory and have it slip away for whatever the reasons may be,” said Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time series champion and Hendrick Racing teammate of Elliott’s. “He’s going to win. He’s going to win a lot. Once he rings the bell the first time, he’s not going to stop. And then championships will be next on his radar.”

“I expect Chase to win multiple races this year and easily make the (championship) chase,” said another teammate you may have heard of, Dale Earnhardt Jr. He starts Sunday’s race next to Elliott on Row 1.

Part of the secret to Elliott’s beyond-his-years presence in this sport is that he does not wear his burdens on the outside.

Not the weight of the expectations that followed him into Jeff Gordon’s old car. “Like I said the first year, I try to focus on what I want to see from myself and not so much worry about what everybody else thinks you should be doing. I don’t plan on changing that outlook.”

Nor the increasing urgency to break through and get that first race victory. “No, I don’t think it weighs on me,” he said. “I obviously look at some of those races and am disappointed about the missed opportunity. But I use it as motivation to try to go and do a better job the next go around.

“Yes, it was unfortunate that we had opportunities and couldn’t get it done. But at the same time, those are mistakes that you need to learn from. And if you can correct it, hopefully those opportunities will be there again and you can capitalize on them.”

The start of a season has become Chase Elliott Time, between him making a tradition of winning the Daytona 500 pole and then moving on the following week to his home track at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

That homecoming was particularly helpful last season as he shook off the Daytona disappointment with a strong run in Hampton and a solid eighth-place finish. His ties with the place will be further strengthened during next week’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, where he hopes to highlight his new charitable foundation and its connection to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

The key, then, is to make the rest of the season significant, all the way to the end.

Winning a race here or there would go a long way toward that — while doing the late Gober Sosebee proud in the process.