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Sprint Cup Series


Despite bumps, Elliott's impressed Gordon, father in rookie season

Chase Elliott

MORE: Buy tickets for Homestead-Miami Championship Weekend

 

Bill Elliott remembers the conversations with his son.

"I said 'If you want to race, then we'll go race. But if you want to go hang out with your buddies on Saturday night, then you can do that. It's your choice,' " Elliott recalled recently.

Chase Elliott wanted to race. He wanted to race small cars and big cars, on dirt and on asphalt. So he did. He raced and he won and he lost and he learned.

And in 2016, two years removed from winning NASCAR's XFINITY Series title, the youngster was handed the keys to his future -- the seat in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driven at the time by four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.

Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) signals the end of the '16 season. Elliott will enter the race 10th in points, having qualified for the championship-determining Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup but falling out of title contention after a difficult second round.

There have been "a lot of ups and downs this year," he said.

"I think the biggest thing I've seen as I've run throughout this year, and Jeff touched on it as we talked in the offseason, he just kept bragging on this group of guys and how good they were and kept saying, 'Man, you're going to a really good group.' I think you have to see some of those things firsthand to really recognize it and appreciate it and as I've gone through this season I really have. I've got some of the best cars you could have to drive. They make me look a lot better than I am.

"Those are the kinds of people you want to be surrounded with if you can do that. I really had nothing to do with the group of people that I was assigned, I was just lucky to fall into place where I did at the time I did. That's been one of my biggest takeaways."

"I've had some really good cars to drive and I think having that good relationship with this group and to be able to count on the job that Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) does ... he does an incredible job and doesn't get enough credit; he makes my job as easy as you could have it."

Elliott has 10 top fives and 17 top-10 finishes this season and won a pair of poles -- at Daytona's season opener and the unpredictable Talladega. He earned career-best second-place finishes at both Michigan races this year and was third twice in the opening round of the Chase.

"I think he's very competitive and in the race car to me he's a veteran," Gordon said. "I know he's beat himself up a few times outside the race car but I like that. That means that second or third is not good enough for him. He's got a bright future."

The fact that he was able to qualify for the Chase, Gordon said, wasn't a surprise. Not after Elliott won the XFINITY Series title his first time out while driving for JR Motorsports. Paired with teammates Jimmie Johnson, a six-time series champion, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr., at HMS, Gordon expected the 20-year-old to excel.

"You still never know," Gordon said. "Especially at the Cup level it's very competitive. Not just in the garage level but at Hendrick. To have Jimmie and Kasey and Junior as your teammates, that's going to make you have to step up. But I don't think we would have put him in there if we didn't believe in him. And you know there are going to be some growing pains. I would say there have been far less than I anticipated."

Gustafson worked with Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Gordon at HMS. He said there was never a question of talent when it came to Elliott. But others with talent have come and gone. Younger drivers can go fast but going fast is only part of the equation. Race conditions, passing, altering one's line to adapt to changing track conditions, and the race on an off pit road are additional hurdles to overcome in order to contend.

It's what Gustafson refers to as "the art of racing" and said it is something that's "definitely underappreciated" today.

"He does that really well," Gustafson said. "Typically in my experience it takes some time to master passing or running in traffic or where you need to move on the track, what you need to do to improve your position. He does a really good job at that. You always can get better -- I think it's something he can learn and change and grow with but I've been pretty impressed with his first year and how he handles all that.

"His maturity and mental aptitude and demeanor are pretty far beyond his years. ... Everybody makes mistakes but I think he minimalizes a lot of what you typically see in rookie."

LEARNING CURVE

Gustafson said Elliott's ability to adapt and digest information quickly when he has struggled in a particular area or at a venue has been impressive. Often, it's the next trip back to that track, or even a year or two, before such improvements bear fruit for a driver.

For Elliott, it's sometimes much sooner. Over the course of a weekend in some cases.

"It doesn't change through practice but then once he's able to go and digest it, think about it and come back with a game plan ... he attacks it and makes significant improvements," Gustafson said.

"It's impressive. I don't know that I've ever worked with a driver that had that ability."

The technology available today has been a big help. Elliott will often pour over information gleaned from his teammates while awaiting changes to the car during practice or at day’s end. Where someone brakes in the corner, how fast they pick up the throttle, how much steering they're putting in their car can help when he’s searching for more speed or a better handling ride.

And he isn't hesitant to change. The stopwatch doesn't lie, he said.

"If the guys have found a way to get you out on the track better for one lap or get you around the race track better for long runs, and that's a proven fact from the stopwatch or tire falloff or whatever data that you can see, then there's no denying that fact," Elliott said. "I think that opens your mind up to try and see what they are doing and how they're going about their job. Amongst our guys or any of the guys in the garage, I just can't see that person X has a car that's that much better than mine. I think you have to recognize that we're in a pretty tight boundary of competition and for you to be way off, well maybe you need to think about how you're driving. Because I know my guys haven't missed it that bad."

Gordon, now a FOX NASCAR analyst, says being young or new to the series is a plus; it's easier to absorb the reams of information available without the baggage of preconceived ideas.

"You're a sponge," he said, "so you can adapt quickly.

"As a team we have to take advantage of that because the longer you go, the harder it is to do that. I think that's one of the things that's made Jimmie so great over all the years is he's been able to do that as well or better than anybody that I know. Someone like Chase, that's as talented and young as he is, I see that in him. That's why I think they've performed consistently very well."

Bill Elliott says he tries to look at his son's progression as a driver and not as his son. Either way, he's been impressed with what he's seen.

"I think he's done a great job from a driving standpoint," Elliott said. "I really didn't know ... when you come into these deals and you think 'OK, I'm getting in Jeff Gordon's car and it's already got a pretty good history to it, a damn good history to it, and what are the expectations for a kid that's come in and only run a handful of Cup races prior to this? I've been very impressed."

A FAN FAVORITE

The elder Elliott won the series' most popular driver award, overseen by the National Motorsports Press Association, a record 16 times. Earnhardt Jr. has won the award the last 13 years. In fact, the award, which has been presented annually since 1953, has gone to someone named Elliott or Earnhardt every year since 1991.

Could the younger Elliott be the next in line?

He has quickly developed his own following of younger fans while appealing to those who were fans of his father, the 1988 series champion, and to those who were fans of Gordon and the No. 24 team.

Voting for this year's MPD award closes Sunday at 11:59 p.m. ET. (www.mostpopulardriver.com)

"The fan base that I acquired the years that I ran was just so phenomenal," Bill Elliott said. "They supported me through thick and thin. I'd fall out of races on some days and there would be fans that would tell me, 'We don't care if you never win another race; we're behind you 100 percent.' To have that kind of following ... I think it just had to do with my background, how I got into the sport, I wasn't part of the established group. I worked hard and tried to do things the right way, which I didn't always do that. But I tried really hard to take care of the race fans because I really respected the fans, whether they were pulling for me or the other drivers.

"I think Chase has been very good and very gracious with the fans and he's been able to pick up that group, plus Jeff had a strong fan base. When you've got everything else ... being involved with Dale Jr. on the XFINITYY side got him exposed to a lot of people. Winning that championship the first year and coming back and finishing second last year, there was a lot going on."

Chase Elliott says seeing fans wearing the No. 24 gear carrying his likeness and name wasn't something he was expecting as the year got underway. And while the competition side of the sport is where he's focused, he understands the importance of the fans.

"They're what makes it go around," he said.

"One thing my dad always touched on was if you're having a bad day or not feeling well, not doing too good, you have to recognize that whether there are two people at an event or 2,000, if you make one person’s day then that goes a long way with that person. Coming from him, I think that's a pretty good word of advice and something to help keep things in perspective."

He listens. And he learns. Even if it's sometimes hard to tell.

"We were in the shop one day and we were working on the Late Model car," Bill Elliott said. "He asked me how to do something and I told him. Then he argued with me and I told him, 'Well, do it your way.' So there you go.

"You know how kids are."

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