Chase Elliott: Wise beyond his years
May 18, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
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NEWTON, Iowa -- This whirlwind weekend that spanned two states and bridged together a weekly NASCAR Nationwide Series race and the life milestone of graduating high school ended for Chase Elliott exactly where he wanted. At Iowa Speedway, on the race track, surrounded by his team and with another top-five finish.
That's where the 18-year-old is most comfortable, because that's where he's always been. His first memories are of his father Bill Elliott's victory at The Brickyard in 2002, where a 6-year-old Chase -- wearing the exact same shirt and cap as his father -- cheered and raised one stubby little finger into the air. He remembers the 2003 season finale at Homestead, when "Awesome Bill" looked to have one last bit of magic in him at age 47 before a cut tire knocked him out of the lead. He never came close to winning again.
So years from now if Elliott is asked to recall the events of May 18, 2014, you can bet he'll remember in vivid detail his rise through the pack during a long green-flag run, when his No. 9 Chevrolet diced through the field after restarting 11th on Lap 150 to get to fourth place as the checkered flag dropped. The high school graduation that happened just 36 hours earlier? It'll be a mere footnote for the guy who's living the life he's always imagined.
"I've always wanted to race," Elliott said before running Sunday's mid-afternoon race. "My whole life, it's just what I've always wanted to do, to be a part of this sport and have success at it. You want to strive to be the best you can be, and hopefully one of the best, if you can ever make it that far."
It's why Elliott laughed when asked to compare the feeling between graduating high school and winning at Darlington -- "Darlington, no contest," he said. It's why Elliott snuck his cell phone into the clothes he wore under his black graduation robe, finding pockets of time while in sunny Georgia to text crew chief Greg Ives and ask about the weather in Iowa and how it might affect the track.
"We talked throughout the day," Elliott says. "It was important for me to know as much as I could. I was asking him to keep me in the loop."
Elliott's relationship with Ives is one of the most important in his burgeoning career. The 34-year-old crew chief was brought up in the garage under the tutelage of Chad Knaus, the mastermind behind Jimmie Johnson's run of six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions. Ives has the rings to prove it, and a wealth of technical knowledge that has no doubt helped Elliott assimilate into Nationwide Series cars.
The driver and crew chief are strikingly similar, from their tall, lanky, physical appearance to their shrewd ability to usefully compartmentalize information and communicate it.
Elliott says part of the reason he and Ives get along so well is their similar backgrounds -- both grew up racing late models. And while Ives is 15 years older, he counts Chase's NASCAR experience as an intangible that supersedes his relative lack of experience.
"The way I look at it, he's not a rookie to this sport," said Ives, who hung Elliott's tassel on the pit box during Sunday's Get to Know Newton 250 presented by Sherwin-Williams. "He's not an 18-year-old to this sport. He's been around the sport for 18 years. He has more experience in this sport than I do, and that's the way he acts and conducts himself.
"I didn't think anything was hectic about the weekend. It was a little bit different than our normal weekend, and I'm happy and proud that he was able to do that thing that all youngsters and teenagers and kids growing up get to do."
Elliott is growing up on the track perhaps quicker than expected. Racing folks have long identified something special in the kid, which is why Rick Hendrick signed him to a driver developmental deal when he was 15 years old -- it was the organization's first such deal in more than five years.
The immediate success in his rookie year -- two wins, five top-fives and eight top-10s in 10 races -- fueled speculation that he was the front-runner for the No. 24 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ride, made famous by Jeff Gordon. It left the teenage rookie in the unpalatable position of having to comment on one of the most heralded drivers in NASCAR history. But it also served as a moment for Elliott's frank, unassuming personality to take roots.
"That's a conversation I have not had with anybody," Elliott told NASCAR.com of the 24 talk. "I just look past it. I don't know why people make those assumptions. Jeff can still get the job done as we saw last week at Kansas -- and that's no surprise to me because he's a wheelman. I'm happy with my opportunity now, and I'm just going to try to make the most of it and see where it leads."
Now that he's out of school, some additional life changes are in his immediate future. Elliott says he's "not sure" if he'll move to North Carolina anytime soon -- JR Motorsports houses its offices in Mooresville, North Carolina -- but he already has an apartment nearby that he'll frequent with more consistency.
And those Tuesday morning competition meetings? He can actually attend now that he's not breaking down the key plot points of "Macbeth."
"I don't like (the apartment) as much as I do at home in Georgia, but I'll be there as much as I need to be and then some, probably," Elliott said. "I plan on traveling with the team, so I plan on being around a pretty good bit. Being able to spend a little more time at the shop, I think it will be good for us. I think that's going to be good to show up on Tuesday mornings and go to those meetings and talk to Regan (Smith) and Kevin (Harvick) -- or whoever drives the No. 5 -- and grow that relationship and build that information feed that goes on around the shop."
Being at JRM more frequently will also allow Elliott to grow his relationship with team co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior said this past weekend the team has a "two-year plan" for its star rookie, and the veteran's steadying presence at the shop helped set the framework for Elliott's early success.
While Earnhardt Jr. has Sprint Cup Series obligations -- the Daytona 500 winner is currently fourth in the standings -- it hasn't stopped him from building JRM into a championship-contending team
"Dale's been awesome," Elliott said. "A lot of people don't get to see him away from the media -- nine times out of 10 all you see is him being interviewed on TV -- but he's a great leader and he has a lot of involvement at JR Motorsports, probably more so than people think. If you ever have the thought that he doesn't really care, you're wrong."
From Iowa, Elliott will head back home to Dawsonville, Georgia to decompress. His friends provide the only break in his life from being consumed by racing, so setups and lap times won't be on his mind for at least a few hours.
Perhaps they'll all get together and celebrate their recent accomplishment. Perhaps they already have, on Saturday night when Elliott was qualifying his car and then talking strategy deep into the night.
If that's the case, it's just fine with Chase.
"I'm sure they had a party, I just wasn't there for it," Elliott says with a grin, "but I'd much rather be here to go racing. More than me missing out on a graduation party, I think they're missing out by not being here at the race track."