Elliott looks to overcome practice mistake
June 20, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- In his opening season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Chase Elliott has enjoyed enough success to make spectators and insiders alike forget that he's still an 18-year-old Sunoco Rookie of the Year Contender. When the track opened for practice Friday at Road America, an uncharacteristic early mistake offered a small reminder balanced against his already impressive body of work.
Elliott missed a shift on his warm-up lap on the 4.048-mile track, causing enough concern within the JR Motorsports camp that the team changed engines in its primary No. 9 Chevrolet. He will not be penalized with a starting position at the rear of the 38-car field because the change occurred before qualifying for Saturday's Gardner Denver 200 Fired Up by Johnsonville (2:45 p.m. ET, ABC). Elliott hopes the lack of track time Friday won't serve as a penalty either.
"I hope it's not a setback. You can't look at it like that," said Elliott, a two-time winner who ranks third in the series this season. "Sure, it would've been nice to get some practice laps, but at the same time, I don't think it's a huge deal. I think as long as I do my job right tomorrow, we'll do just fine."
Elliott does have some road-course experience in Elkhart Lake, finishing fourth here last season in an ARCA Series race. He also has shown prowess in going clockwise and turning right and left, claiming his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory last year at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
Besides the small dose of experience, Elliott also has a veteran teammate at JRM in Nationwide Series points leader Regan Smith. When his on-track time was cut short Friday, Elliott stuck around in the garage to shadow Smith for pointers.
Smith said he'd be an open book to Elliott as he learns the ropes, but that the rookie's talent stood on its own merit.
"He hasn't made many mistakes," Smith said. "He is still a rookie. I think we forget that he's a rookie, he's 18 years old. He's been so good that that sort of gets lost in the shuffle a little bit sometimes. Hell, I think my first 20 times at road courses and probably I'll do it 10 times tomorrow, I've missed gears, I'll grind gears and wheel-hop and do about everything wrong. ... You name it. There's so much that can happen at these places so he'll be fine tomorrow."
Another new wrinkle for Elliott will be operating with a fill-in crew chief talking him through Road America. The move isn't related to a performance or chemistry issue; with regular crew chief Greg Ives back home with his family after the Friday morning birth of the couple's third child, Ernie Cope will slide into the role from the No. 5 JR Motorsports team, which is idle this week.
Even with a different face atop the pit box, Cope expects business as usual come Saturday.
"Our organization is strong," Cope said. "The easiest thing making it that way is that Greg and I have only been working together since December, but we just mesh really well. We've been good teammates to each other and we basically run cars the same way with the same philosophy. Like I say, this is his deal and we're going to try to do the best we can."
Besides the potential adjustments to the early adversity and the personnel change, Elliott is also bracing for the possible pitfalls of a bruising finish. He faced some of that when he brushed aside Ty Dillon for his first national series win last year in Canada, and he clearly knows Road America's history for late-race fireworks.
"I'm sure it's going to be a rough race. It seems like it always is here and at a lot of road courses in general," Elliott said. "It's so easy to want to out-brake the guy ahead of you and pull to the bottom. It's very teasing, and it wants you to, a lot of times you probably shouldn't."