Sprint Cup Series


Chase Elliott gears up for Sprint Cup rookie season

Chase Elliott

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Had it not been for a phone call from James Finch, Chase Elliott might not be making his Sprint Cup debut as a fulltime driver in the No. 24 Chevrolet of four-time champion and recently retired-from-driving Jeff Gordon in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series this season because it was Finch, the former team owner, who brought Elliott, son of 1988 series champion and NASCAR Hall of Fame member Bill Elliott, to the attention of one Rick Hendrick.
 
Or, as Hendrick stated simply: "My talent scout alerted me."
 
Hendrick and Finch are long-time pals, and Phoenix Racing, the one-time Finch-owned NASCAR organization, purchased its chassis and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. The business side of the relationship continued after Finch sold the team to Harry Scott; Phoenix Racing became HScott Motorsports and Finch became a "former owner."
 
But back to Elliott …
 
"He (Finch) called me and said 'Have you seen this Elliott kid drive?" Hendrick said. "I said, 'He's not old enough.'
 
"James said, 'He's racing; he's 14 and racing these guys like Kyle (Busch).'
 
"Then when I met (Chase) and talked to him, I was just super impressed."
 
That was six years ago and Hendrick, who has won premier series championships with three different drivers, was impressed enough to revive a dormant development program and support a youngster who had neither a driver's license nor a shaving kit but apparently could drive the wheels off a Late Model car.
 
"I said I wasn't ever going to do that again," Hendrick said of the undertaking. "The last time I had a driver development program, I had like three (drivers) and we put on 51 clips in a season. I said 'that's enough for me.'"

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Officials within the Hendrick organization questioned the move. They reminded Hendrick of his prior decision and the rising tide of costs that resulted from the previous effort.
 
But the boss wouldn't be swayed.
 
"I'm glad I made the investment," Hendrick said. "When he got in that (XFINITY) car and started outrunning everybody, then they were taking the credit and I said, 'wait, you are the same guys that said I was stupid for doing it.'"
 
The XFINITY entry was fielded by JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller.
 
What to know about HMS: Drivers for the organization have won 11 premier series championships and a staggering 240 races. Gordon's departure from the driver’s seat opened the door for Elliott, who will join teammates Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne this season. It’s the first driver change at HMS since 2012 when Kahne joined the organization, replacing veteran Mark Martin in the No. 5 Chevrolet.

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For Elliott, the comparisons to Gordon are inevitable.
 
Hendrick said he believes Elliott is as good now as Gordon was when he joined HMS in late 1992.
 
"I've never seen a young guy mature as quickly as he has and handle pressure the way he has," Hendrick said. "The raw talent; he's special, that's all I can say. Jeff wrecked a lot of cars his first year. But Jeff was fast, unbelievably fast."
 
What to know about Elliott: He's 20, and not only has a driver's license but a pilot's license as well. At JRM, he won the 2014 XFINITY Series championship and finished second last season. His father won 44 premier series races in addition to the '88 crown.

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While he is appreciative of his team owner's confidence, the younger Elliott stiff-arms the notion that he’s as good now as Gordon was then.
 
"I think Jeff was light years ahead of most everybody at 20, 25," he said. "I'm going to let the boss say that … but I disagree."
 
He understands the challenges ahead – a longer season and longer races, incredibly talented competition on the track mixed with more obligations outside the car. Daunting? Yes. Overwhelming? No.
 
Elliott has enjoyed success in each series as his career progressed, the various stops helping to shape his driving style as he honed his talents. The journey also taught him perspective.
 
"No matter what's happened in the past or how things have gone for you, that's no guarantee that things are going to be good for you moving forward," Elliott said. "I expect a lot of challenges."
 
He got a taste of those challenges last season, making five starts for Hendrick Motorsports while continuing to compete full time in the XFINITY Series. The starts came at Martinsville (in March), Richmond (in April), Charlotte (in May), Indianapolis (in July) and Darlington (in September). Elliott finished 16th at Richmond, and inside the top 20 at Charlotte (18th) and Indy (18th) as well.
 
"They definitely didn't go as well as I would have wanted them to," he said. "We had our struggles and I'll be the first one to take the blame for all of them. I made a lot of mistakes, they were just dumb and (ones) I shouldn't have made, that I should know better as this point than to do."

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Elliott will be paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson, who helped guide Gordon to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup last season. Gustafson's been around the block a few times, having won with Kyle Busch, Martin and Gordon while at HMS.
 
Hendrick expects Elliott to be "one of the flag bearers for the sport" within the next decade.
 
"That Elliott name, his status with the fans – he's already popular – his talent and the way he handles himself," he said. "How do you get to be 18, go out and win a championship and not get cocky, not get smart or just get your head bigger than it ought to be? That showed me a lot.
 
"He came back after winning (the XFINITY title) as humble or more humble than he was, but confident. That's pretty special."
 
Humility seems to be a trait rather than an option. If Elliott is sometimes too quick to shoulder all the blame for miscues, mishaps and less-than-expected results, he's been just as quick to praise those around him for his success and his continued progression.
 
"Growing up I've had such good people around me, whether it was go-kart days, short-track Late Model racing days, to the XFINITY side and being amongst this great organization and great team," he said. "I couldn't have asked for better people since day one.
 
"I think that's the biggest thing. All those people deserve the credit, because without all of them I wouldn't be where I'm at today. I think a lot of them have made me look a lot better than I am over the years. I'm just very fortunate to have this chance."

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