Breakthrough win could jumpstart Chase Elliott’s season

Chase Elliott showed up for his Friday morning news conference at Michigan International Speedway still smiling. Five days after earning his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win, who could blame him?

The best part for the quiet-natured 22-year old might be that he’s absolutely a favorite to win again. This weekend.

The two-mile super-fast Michigan oval – where the series races Sunday in the Consumers Energy 400 (2:30 ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – has long been one of Elliott’s finest tracks.

He has, by far, the best driver rating here and has never finished outside the top 10 in five starts. He was – either remarkably or painstakingly, depending on how you look at it  – runner-up in his first three races at the track. His ninth-place finish in June’s rain-shortened race in the No. 9 Chevrolet is his “worst” showing. For it all, his average finish is an amazing 4.6.

Not only do Elliott’s stats earn him that good Michigan vibe, but his victory last weekend was so popular, his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate – now a NBC television analyst – Dale Earnhardt Jr. started referring to Elliott as “Elvis.”

“I think he needs to retire from giving nicknames,’’ Elliott said laughing. “For some reason he has always thought I look like Elvis and I really don’t know why.  I know he has a little bit of an obsession with Elvis. He has an Elvis room in his house, which is kind of weird.

“I’ve been in that room before and you wake up and there is this Elvis man staring at you.  I don’t know if he just has a thing for Elvis or what.’’

Whatever Earnhardt’s motivation in the name, Elliott is certainly NASCAR’s current version of a beloved icon. His victory on the historic Watkins Glen road course last weekend formally turned positive potential into great result.

The former Xfinity Series champion had eight runner-up showings and eight third-place showings in his three-year fulltime Cup career prior to last weekend, and getting that first victory was a long time coming for him, and for his H-U-G-E  fandom.

But Elliott never truly doubted it would come. The circumstances just hadn’t been right yet, he conceded.

“As you move forward they don’t get any easier,’’ he said. “I definitely feel a lot of relief to have finally won a race after being so close so many times. I certainly feel like I have some more confidence that I haven’t had leading into a race weekend, which is nice, but that doesn’t mean things are going to get any easier, but I think that just a lot of relief for myself and my team.

“I’m excited to see where we go moving forward whether it gets better or worse I don’t know, but I feel good about it and that is all that matters.”

And so do plenty of others. His father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott was spotting for him on the Glen’s famous road course and able to join him in a hugely celebratory victory lane. Bill Elliott was the sport’s former multi-season Most Popular Driver – the precursor to Earnhardt’s 15-year run – and it felt too many people, like another formal passing of the throne, in light of Earnhardt’s retirement from fulltime Cup competition in 2017.

Yet even in the midst of Elliott’s career-defining day, it was also more simply, a proud dad and son moment.

It’s been 54 years since a Cup driver (Billy Wade) scored his first and second wins in consecutive races. NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett did so as well, in 1959. And considering Elliott’s past work at Michigan, there’s probably no venue on the schedule with better odds for him to make that happen.

“I hope so,” Elliott said, allowing a grin. “This has been a pretty good track for us in general.

“That’s not to say this weekend will go good. I feel like we were better here my first two years than we were in the spring race this year, unfortunately. So, yeah, I don’t know. I hope this weekend goes good and I think this weekend will be kind of a gauge of where we stack-up for some of these race tracks that are coming up at Indy and not so much Darlington, but here and Indy and Vegas and some of the 1.5-mile and 2-milers coming up. We didn’t stack up very well here in the spring race.

“I think we’ve gotten a little better at these style tracks since then, so hopefully.  We’ll see.”

And all of NASCAR will be looking.

Comments