Chase Elliott's breakout was rooted in Richmond
September 04, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
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By the end of the 2013 season, Chase Elliott had established himself as a prospect. Maybe not the all-world future superstar he appears to be now, but a prospect nonetheless.
One problem: He had no ride. Despite one win and seven top-10s in nine NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts as a part-timer, Elliott lost his sponsor before the year had ended.
Dejected, he was home in Georgia fretting over his future every night, not unlike a high school senior (which he was) waiting to hear back from his choice college.
The greatest breakout story of 2014 almost never happened.
"We had absolutely nothing going on, and that's no lie," Elliott said last month in his hauler at Bristol. "I had no plans for this year, so I'd probably be sitting on the couch right now if this deal with NAPA did not come together.
"I don't think a lot of people realize that, that we had no plans. I mean, none."
Instead, he has three wins as an 18-year-old rookie in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and is the series points leader with nine races remaining.
The deal that made all of this possible came together quickly, a series of ridiculous events that fell absurdly into perfect place.
First, NAPA announced it would cease its sponsorship with Michael Waltrip Racing in the fallout of a race manipulation scandal at Richmond.
That put a marquee sponsor on the market, so to speak. It just so happened that the Earnhardts have deep ties with NAPA, and it just so happened that Dale Earnhardt Jr., who drives for Rick Hendrick, co-owns a Nationwide Series team -- and it just so happens that Elliott is a Hendrick developmental driver … get the picture?
"I'm sure that we were one of probably 30 teams that sent a note to (NAPA) after what they experienced (at Richmond) as they were looking at what they were going to do in the sport," team co-owner Kelley Earnhardt Miller said before the season started. "We would (have been) ignorant if we didn't put something together."
What they put together has worked across all platforms -- on the race track, in NAPA stores and on television. (Who can forget that commercial with Elliott, his father Bill Elliott and Earnhardt?)
The success has spilled into the garage, too. Given the opportunity to crew chief the No. 9 NAPA team, Greg Ives -- who didn't meet the driver in January -- and Elliott both have thrived to the point where they expect to have a hand in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series next year.
It's clear what Ives' role will be -- he's been hired as Earnhardt's new crew chief. And Hendrick has repeatedly said he intends to get Elliott into a car for a handful of Cup races, which could pave the way for a full-time Sprint Cup Series entry in 2016.
"There's really no need to get too hung up over it," Elliott said with a wry grin. "Mr. Hendrick, like a lot of people has heard, he's talked a lot about running some Cup races next year. If that's the case, great, but that's definitely not for sure right now. If that becomes for sure, I'll be excited at that point."
Given where Elliott is, and where he was, excitement is a feeling he's simply gotten used to. It sure beats the nervousness and angst he felt throughout last season and deep into December, when his future was cloudy and unclear.
That seems like an awful long time ago.
"I think the pressure was definitely on," Elliott said. "You certainly hope not, but you think, 'Hey, this might be one of my last opportunities to have a chance.' Racing's been my life for a long time. Not knowing what your future is within the sport, or if there is a future, was not comforting to know. It was something that I often thought about.
"I just kind of took it a week at a time. I asked every day if we had any kind of sponsorship. You just keep your hopes up and hope it would come together. Fortunately it did. I say it a lot, but this has been the opportunity of a lifetime. To go from not knowing what you were gonna do last year to coming on full time and to be able to win some races this year has been a dream come true."
Editor's note: NAPA declined to comment for this story.