Elliott suffers tough first Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — The preliminaries to Sunday’s Daytona 500 had treated young Chase Elliott with such a gentle hand, practically cradling him through every step of the build-up to the big race.

He became at 20 years old the youngest ever to win the Daytona 500 pole. Saturday he won the Xfinity prelim event. The ride he had inherited, Jeff Gordon’s ol’ No. 24, was a proven beast.

Then came the main event. And it spanked Elliott. Hard.

Elliott’s Excellent Daytona Adventure came to abrupt end less than 50 miles into the 500, with his dented car spewing sod like a beaten bar-fighter spitting teeth, careening into the frontstretch green space.

The son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott, making one of the most anticipated rookie debuts in a decade, wiped out trying to negotiate the speedway’s slippery fourth turn.

Untouched, he lost control of his car, veered down into the entrance of pit row and eventually brought his crumpled car to rest on the infield grass.

His crew put enough of the pieces back together to allow Elliott to return to the track and turn laps in the slipstream of all the relevant cars. He finished 37th in the 40-car field.

Starting from the pole, Elliott led the first three laps before being passed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. He was running in the middle of a three-wide pack when the trouble struck.

His explanation wouldn’t satisfy any insurance adjuster, but it was good enough for racing.

“I’m not sure (what happened),” Elliott said. “I just got turned around there off of (turn) four. Got in the middle and got loose. Lost it and spun out. I hate it for everybody at less than 20 laps in and have something dumb like that happen. I apologize to my guys.”

If it was any consolation, a driver of far greater experience and with a famous last name of his own wrecked in almost the exact same manner. In that case it was Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt, the betting-line favorite to win this race, spinning out at the same area of the track in the last quarter of the race.

Handling was an issue for many in the field, the greatest challenge being the final turn.

“We really underestimated how important handling was going to be today,” Earnhardt said, speaking for drivers young and old.

“A huge shift from last year and the years before,” he said. “The balance of the car was a big curve ball today. We really didn’t anticipate the balance being that big of a deal.”

Next for the field is a place Elliott calls home, Atlanta Motor Speedway, for the Folds of Honor/QuikTrip 500 in a week. The kid already was looking forward to familiar surroundings.

“I hate (the quick exit at Daytona), it’s such a fun race; you hate to end the race before it even got started,” he said.

“I’m disappointed for everybody. We’ll just have to look past it for Atlanta.

“That is the most important thing now. Can’t get caught up in what happened today, it is irrelevant now.”