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Chase Elliott, atop Nationwide class, gets diploma

May 16, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Chase Elliott, atop Nationwide class, gets diploma
JRM driver's double duty: Racing in Iowa and high school commencement

RELATED: How to follow racing at Iowa Speedway | Play NASCAR Fantasy Live

Chase Elliott's NASCAR higher education began in February, but he graduates high school on Saturday.

Heeding his parents' "suggestion," the 18-year old NASCAR Nationwide Series championship leader will spend this weekend commuting 882 miles each way between the series' first standalone event at Iowa Speedway and his commencement exercises at Kings Ridge Christian School back home in Dawsonville, Ga.

Elliott will practice his JR Motorsports No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevy on Friday, walk on stage and get his diploma Saturday morning then qualify the car Saturday night and race Sunday.

It will be a busy three days, but Elliott's hoping to cap the weekend by celebrating both the academic accomplishment and what would be a series best third win in Iowa's Victory Lane.

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"At first I kind of had the mindset, I didn't want to go [to graduation], just go to Iowa and focus on the race weekend," Elliott said. "The more I talked to people, [crew chief] Greg Ives being one of them, and my parents [former Cup champ and NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2015 nominee Bill Elliott and Cindy] -- my mom especially -- she wanted me to go and be a part of it.

"It's something that if you don't do it, you'll wish you had looking back on it later on. There's no guarantees in anything you do. But I hope there are many more weekends I can race in my life, and high school graduation you only do once. I know it's weather dependent. Hope it stays good enough to make it back and forth."

Juggling school commitments and his burgeoning racing career is nothing new for Elliott. He typically missed a day or two of school during a race week, but has worked hard to maintain his grades. He chuckled this week that while he may not be at the very top of his class of 60 fellow grads, he does maintain at least a B in all of his classes.

"English has probably been the toughest to keep up with because it's a class with a lot of valuable in-class discussion so when you're gone, it makes it harder to write the essays and take the tests," Elliott explained. "Math is pretty straightforward.

"At times, it was a bit of a struggle but they work pretty well with me. The teachers are used to it and have been good to me."

Elliott's growing legion of NASCAR can fans can attest he's a quick learner judging by his two wins and one-point lead in the Nationwide Series championship as a Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender.

He's only finished out of the top-10 twice in nine races and nearly won three in a row last month -- with back-to-back victories at Texas Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway and a runner-up at Richmond International Raceway.

Ironically, the only full-time high school student in racing full time in NASCAR's national series has been regularly schooling the competition -- winning over the respect of veterans, racing door-to-door for wins despite his limited experience.

Elliott hopes the biggest benefit of having his high school diploma in hand will be the opportunity to devote more time to his racing team. His team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his veteran teammates -- full-time Cup drivers Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne -- have regularly praised Elliott's work ethic and drive to constantly improve with each race. Elliott is eager to see how much better he can be with his sole focus on racing for the first time in his life.

"I feel like it's going to be a good thing, good to have extra involvement, be at the shop, be at the competition meetings, just try to better that knowledge of after a race, what we need to do to improve," Elliott said. "I think that will be the biggest benefit of me being around more. I hope that helps things, helps the race team, helps the organization as a whole get better."

Sounding a whole lot wiser than his 18 years would normally indicate, Elliott was quick to follow that with an insightful observation.

"You still need a good balance of what we do away from racing, and I feel like school, for me, has been that balance," Elliott said. "It seems like all the Cup guys are having kids at the same time right now. Kevin Harvick is a good example about this. I hear from him how his having a son is such a good balance away from racing. I think you need it. Have to be mindful to have that balance while giving it the focus it needs."

There have been small life sacrifices along the way already. Elliott didn't get to senior prom, for example. And he won't be attending any graduation parties Saturday night. But he plans on catching up with his friends during an off-week in the schedule.

Even with his profile rising in national headlines and increased television time, Elliott joked he didn't have a rash of invites to his senior prom anyway.

"Honestly, not really," Elliott said, laughing. "It would have been nice to have gone. It was Saturday night after Darlington, but I'd already made commitments to be there for the Cup race the next day so it was a little bit of a bummer not to go to the senior prom. But I did go last year so that's better than nothing."

Elliott is already looking further ahead. But even as he enters this next phase in life and career, he is mindful of what got him there -- appreciative of his parents' support, grateful for the racing opportunities.

While other teenagers may hope for a fast car or a fun trip as graduation gifts, Elliott says he's already received plenty.

"Racing is something I've always wanted to do, so it's my dream come true," Elliott said, laughing and noting that he has no idea of what presents he may receive.

"Have to wait and see. I'm not complaining," Elliott said. "I'm good. I get to go race every weekend so I'm happy."

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