Chase Elliott forging own identity apart from dad
February 18, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Awesome Chase from that Georgia place?
Doesn't quite have a ring to it.
"My name's kind of hard to rhyme with," Chase Elliott said.
Indeed, the son of former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott doesn't yet have a nickname that rolls off the tongue as effortlessly as that of his father, who was known as both "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" as well as "Million Dollar Bill." Of course, there's also plenty of time for 18-year-old Chase to build an identity for himself, given that the heralded Nationwide Series rookie begins his first full-time season at the sport's national level in Saturday's opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Oh, he's Bill Elliott's son, no doubt -- it's evident in his eyes, in his car number, in his hometown of Dawsonville, Ga. Ask Chase for a favorite memory of his dad's career, and the 2002 Brickyard triumph -- which would prove the next-to-last race victory for Million Dollar Bill -- springs first to mind. And the elder Elliott has played a major role in shepherding his son's career, even testing with Chase last month at Daytona, behind the wheel of the JR Motorsports entry Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drive this weekend.
And yet, like every next generation in every racing family, Chase Elliott faces the not-uncomplicated task of constructing his own identity while carrying a familiar last name. He's far from alone there -- Kyle Petty did it, Buddy Baker did it, Earnhardt Jr. did it, Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole Award sitter Austin Dillon is doing it now. As for the younger Elliott, it's clear his dad's legacy and support mean a lot to him. But it's also clear that he wants to build his own name.
"It's a tough balance, but at the same time, the way I've always looked at it is, I'm me and he's him," Chase said. "Really, there's nothing else to say about it. Obviously my last name is the same as his, and he's had a phenomenal career, but at the same time I'm trying to make one for myself. Regardless of what your last name is, if you don’t get the job done, you're not going to be around for very long. So I'm just trying to get focused on that and do my job right."
It's a familiar tactic -- Dillon, grandson of six-time championship car owner Richard Childress and son of former national-series driver Mike Dillon, is doing the same thing in emphasizing performance above everything else. Elliott is certainly on the right track, given that he's already won a Camping World Truck Series event. He's also no stranger to controversy -- that Truck victory at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park came after he turned Ty Dillon in the final corner, something driver Buster Graham mentioned in a television interview after he went sideways in front of Elliott in a 15-car wreck in last week's ARCA race at Daytona.
Whether there was any contact between two remains unclear. "I never touched him. Just an aero thing, best I can tell," Elliott said of the ARCA incident. It was another chapter in Chase's evolution as a racer, as will be his Nationwide debut on Saturday. Elliott had never driven a Nationwide car until the January test at Daytona, and thanks in part to a few pointers from his father -- "The way he understands the air, I think, is really important," Chase said -- topped the speed chart in the draft after the first day. He and JRM crew chief Greg Ives have brought the same car back for the race this weekend.
And that car will bear the No. 9, the same numeral his father made famous during Bill's glory days with Melling Racing. Born in 1995, Chase wasn't around for his father's championship campaign, or that first Winston Million bonus that his dad won, or either of Bill's two Daytona 500 triumphs. Of Bill Elliott's 44 victories in the Sprint Cup Series, only four came after Chase's birth. The younger Elliott remembers a few wins from his father's days at Evernham Motorsports, but he didn't really grow up with Bill Elliott the NASCAR legend. He grew up with Bill Elliott the dad.
Still, getting to go to the race track every weekend was "the coolest thing ever," Chase said, and he'll admit it seems odd now going for reasons other than to watch his dad compete. Even so, he learned things from just watching and being around his father, even toward the latter end of Bill's driving career. And the work ethic has been passed down from father to son.
"My dad, when he was growing up, he had to work hard," Chase said. "The way my grandfather always was, the only thing he knew was working hard. That's all he knew how to do. My dad, especially when I was first starting out, he wanted me to work and work on the race car so I could understand that side of it, too. I feel like that’s important. Even now, these cars are different and I have a lot to learn, but the more I can understand the cars, the better off I can be."
It certainly pays off these days, as Chase is beginning his full-time NASCAR career and working to finish high school at the same time. He's been missing "a pretty good bit" of class time really since his late model career took off in ninth grade, and he started traveling on Thursdays and Fridays to race. He tried home schooling, but found it wasn't for him. His teachers at King's Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta, Ga., have been understanding, he said, allowing him to take work on the road, and Elliott is on track to graduate in May.
Some of his high school friends are scheduled to travel down for the Nationwide opener this weekend. As for missing the social element of high school? "I feel like they're missing out not coming to the races," Chase said. "I'm beyond happy with what I do right now, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."
He's a racer to the core, all right, just like his dad. Maybe one day he'll indeed have a catchy nickname all to himself, another step toward building his own identity as a race car driver. Maybe then everyone else will see Bill Elliott the way Chase sees him -- not solely as NASCAR legend and champion, but as dad.
"He's always kind of let me do my own thing," Chase said. "Racing has always been my choice, and it's nothing he's ever forced upon me. If I went home and told him I didn’t want to race anymore, he'd say, 'All right, let's go do something else,' and there wouldn't be any hard feelings. On that side of it, I feel like I've been really fortunate. He's always been very supportive. The biggest thing is, he's always been just a dad, and that’s all I can ask for."