All eyes were on rookie NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, Chase Elliott, before he ever gripped the wheel of the famed No. 24 Chevrolet this season. As the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott and the successor of four-time champion Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports in the 24, the shadows of past racing legends and fan expectations loomed for the young talent even during his reign as the 2014 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion.
The younger Elliott grew up racing go-karts and late models while watching his father compete in NASCAR-sanctioned events long after his 1988 championship. But for the 20-year-old Dawsonville, Georgia, native, the realization that the baton had officially been passed didn’t set in until he headed to Daytona International Speedway in early 2016.
“I think a lot of it kind of sank in going to Daytona, and heading down to the Daytona 500 to not watch him race was weird,” Elliott said. “It was interesting to go through all the same motions, except knowing I wasn’t there just to watch.”
So far, Elliott has lived up to the expectations by becoming one of only three rookies to ever make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs. He has yet to win his first race, but claims nine top-five showings – the most by a rookie since Carl Edwards scored 13 in 2005.
“I think I’ve been lucky to have some good moments over the racing I’ve done to this point, and I think a lot of the things we went through have led to the opportunities we have today,” Elliott said.
Bill Elliott had a knack for winning the biggest of races. He visited Victory Lane in the Daytona 500 twice, as well as the Southern 500 three times. On Sunday, Chase Elliott can prove he received the “clutch gene” in arguably the most important race of his life to this point – the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN; NASCAR.com/tickets) – the halfway mark in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Though Sunday’s race doesn’t carry the prestige of a Daytona 500, it’s become absolutely vital to Elliott’s season. He needs to produce a strong performance to make up ground in the Chase. After a late-race wreck at Charlotte, he currently sits three points below Denny Hamlin for the final transfer spot to the Chase’s Round of 8.
Elliott’s accomplishments up to this point of the season show the task is possible. Right off the bat, he became the youngest driver ever to capture the Daytona 500 pole. He reeled off 12 top 10s in the first 15 races, and although he hasn’t won yet, proved he’s a threat for the checkered flag every weekend with some near misses at Pocono and Michigan.
In the Chase, Elliott has led the second-most laps in two of the four races, trailing only six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson both times.
“I’m proud of a lot of moments that we’ve had,” Elliott said. “I’m not so proud of some, like anybody else, but I definitely don’t like to narrow it down to one thing, because it wasn’t one thing that made everything happen just in the flip of a switch.”
Some might say Elliott’s success is largely attributed to growing up in a “racing family,” but the feats he’s achieved a mere 30 races into his rookie season demonstrate his talent and indicate greater success to come.
“There’s definitely no certainty, and I think that’s the biggest challenge as you grow up and are trying to race. You just never know what’s going to happen or how things may play out,” Elliott said. “I couldn’t be any luckier for how things did work out, but there was definitely no certainty along the way.”