Dale Jr. tabs Chase Elliott for No. 9 JRM ride
January 06, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been an admirer of Bill Elliott. Now NASCAR's most popular driver will field a NASCAR Nationwide Series entry for the son of the driver long known as "Awesome Bill," using the same car number made famous by the 1988 premier series champion.
JR Motorsports announced Monday that 18-year-old Chase Elliott, already a race winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, would compete full-time in the Nationwide Series in 2014 in a No. 9 car backed by NAPA Auto Parts. Greg Ives, who guided JRM driver Regan Smith to a pair of victories last year, will work as crew chief. Elliott is a Hendrick Motorsports developmental driver, and JRM is co-owned by Rick Hendrick.
"I just couldn't be any more excited and any more fortunate," Elliott said. "I feel it's the opportunity of a lifetime, and this is my chance to do what I love to do and make the most of it."
Elliott has shown tremendous potential in a very short time, winning once last season on the ARCA circuit in addition to his victory in the Truck Series. His first NASCAR win came in 2012 in the K&N Pro East at Iowa and he's been a participant in the NASCAR Next program the last two years.
This past September at age 17, Elliott edged Ty Dillon in a controversial finish at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park to become the youngest winner in Truck Series history. That mark was eventually eclipsed by Erik Jones, who is six months younger than Elliott and won the Truck Series event last November at Phoenix.
And yet despite those on-track exploits, Elliott's 2014 plans remained uncertain after his truck's sponsor, Aaron's, announced in August an agreement to back Brian Vickers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Michael Waltrip Racing for this coming season. NAPA, which will back Elliott's Nationwide car, had been a MWR sponsor until leaving the team following the race manipulation scandal last September at Richmond.
"Chase Elliott is a young and talented future star in the sport," said Dan Askey, president of NAPA, "and will represent NAPA well both on and off the track."
For Elliott, Monday's announcement brought an end to some sleepless nights.
"I wasn't real sure where I was going to end up," he said. "Having support and having people to back you and a sponsor is the thing that allows people to have opportunities. For me, at the end of last year, (with) Aaron's announcing what they were going to do, I wasn't real sure about my future. Fortunately, NAPA kind of came along and showed some interest, and we were able to get some things worked out, and thankfully that's where we're at today."
Elliott said he met with NAPA officials along with Hendrick and JRM vice president Kelley Earnhardt Miller. The company will now embark on its 19th season as a sponsor in NASCAR, and Elliott will head to Daytona International Speedway for this week's preseason test session. In the months of uncertainly, Elliott said he was never tempted to explore options outside the Hendrick umbrella.
"It was really never a consideration," he said. "I felt like my best bet to have any kind of future in racing was to be where I was at. When I was at the point of not knowing what I was going to do, I was content to stay patient. I felt like if I just sat tight there, and just did what I needed to do and made the most of the races I did do, if I wasn't doing much next year, if that had been the case, that's all I can do. I feel like I'm at the best place I could possibly be. My personal opinion, I don’t feel like I could be aligned with a better group of people. So hopefully this is where I can stay for my career."
Elliott turned 18 this past Nov. 28, making him eligible for competition in the Nationwide Series. His car number, 9, is the one his father Bill used for much of his career at NASCAR's top level, including the 1988 campaign when he won the championship.
"No doubt, the historical element of this is pretty cool," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Bill Elliott is certainly one of the greats. I've always looked up to him. He had some great battles with my dad. Certainly, The Winston in 1987 is an all-time favorite. It was probably some of the hardest racing you'll see, and it's fun to watch even today. I think there are a lot of Elliott fans and Earnhardt fans that will take interest in Chase's career and support him 100 percent."
Elliott will be part of a JRM team that will field two full-time Nationwide entries for 2014, joined by Smith and his new crew chief Ryan Pemberton. There will also be two part-time teams, a No. 5 with driver Kevin Harvick and crew chief Ernie Cope, and a No. 88 with Earnhardt. Miller called it "the strongest lineup we’ve put on the track since we started racing full-time in 2006."
For Elliott, it will bring a transition -- this week's test at Daytona will mark the first time he's ever driven a Nationwide car. And with just nine Truck Series starts to his name, he'll be seeing many national series tracks for the first time. He does have the luxury of having tested Sprint Cup cars a few times, and said he and Ives have other Nationwide tests planned beyond Daytona before the season begins.
"Going to these new places, there's going to be a learning curve," Elliott said. "Learning these race cars is going to be new. Running a full year and having this opportunity -- it's all new. It's all new to me. It's definitely not going to be easy, nobody said it's going to be. You're racing with the best of the best on a lot of weekends, and it's going to be a tough year, but it's going to be a lot of fun."
Still, Earnhardt is bullish on his new driver.
"Chase has been extremely successful, and I think the Nationwide Series is only a short step for him," he said. "With the infrastructure we have at JR Motorsports and our close-working partnership with Hendrick Motorsports, we have every opportunity to continue Chase's development as a driver while contending for a championship. He's that good."
These days, he's also relieved. Elliott said he was working in the family's race shop with his dad a few weeks ago when his mother told them the phone call had just come informing them the Nationwide deal had been sealed.
"You really don’t know that everything's going to come together until something's signed," he said. "But really, just a few weeks ago, we just found out that everything was a go and everything was going to move forward. I've been anxiously awaiting today, and Daytona as well."