April 10, 2014 — audio and story by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Speed77 Radio and Race Chaser Online — Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images North America photo — DAWSONVILLE, GA — Normal 18-year-old kid? Not a chance.
And for NASCAR Nationwide Series rookie Chase Elliott, that’s just the way he likes it.
Elliott, out of Dawsonville, Georgia, has spent virtually his entire life chasing speed and going fast. The teenager has won in everything he has set foot in, and last Friday night, continued that streak when he scored his maiden Nationwide Series victory at Texas Motor Speedway, becoming the second-youngest winner in series history and outrunning some of the best in the business in the process.
And when two of those “best in the business” drivers were Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who happen to be Elliott’s teammates, it made the moment all the sweeter for the rising NASCAR star.
“I’ll be honest with you, that wasn’t how I thought it would go at all,” Elliott admitted with a laugh during a recent interview with Race Chaser Online. “It was crazy. But you know, we had a great car Friday night, and it paid off. I just used what I had learned from Dale and Kevin throughout the race and it worked right there at the end.”
“It certainly made it mean even more, you know, that I beat guys like them, like Kyle (Busch), like Elliott Sadler; it was a real special moment. I mean, I grew up watching these guys race and now I’m racing against them. It’s wild, man.”
Elliott grew up in Dawsonville, Georgia and has had a passion for racing from the time he was a kid, just like his father, two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and 16-time Most Popular Driver Bill Elliott. The young star started his racing career at age 12 and rapidly progressed through the short track ranks, blistering his competition in Pro and Super Late Models over the course of his early career. It wasn’t until 2010 though that Chase truly “broke out” so to speak, when he finished in the top ten in 38 of his 40 races that year and won the Blizzard Series, Miller Lite Series and Gulf Coast Series championships before capping the run off with a spectacular win in the Winchester 400, one of the crown jewels of Super Late Model Racing.
That momentum carried into the following two seasons, beginning when Elliott signed a three-year driver development deal with Hendrick Motorsports in February of 2011 and began competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, finishing ninth in points and going on to net Most Popular Driver honors (a feat that he would repeat in 2012). Elliott would also net the CRA Super Late Model National Championship in November, and cap off the year by holding off a talent-laden field to score his second crown jewel victory in the Snowball Derby that December.
2012 brought a return to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and the high of earning his first series win in May at Iowa Speedway for Elliott, ultimately finishing fourth in series points. Elliott also won the Allen Turner Snowflake 100, the precursor to the Snowball Derby, for the second time in three years, and added a win from the pole in the World Crown 300 at Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia for good measure. He was also selected as on of NASCAR’s “Next9” (now the NASCAR Next program), highlighting some of the young stars making their way up the NASCAR ladder.
However, last season was the move to the national spotlight for Elliott, who competed in select ARCA Racing Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) events and excelled in both categories. Elliott scored his first ARCA victory in June at Pocono, becoming the youngest superspeedway winner in series history, and followed that up with his first career NCWTS pole at Bristol in August. The next week would see Elliott take a controversial but long-awaited first NASCAR national series triumph when he scored the Truck Series’ inaugural win at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park after contact with Ty Dillon in the final corner.
Elliott says that Truck series win was when it all started to sink in.
“You look back on it, and obviously, we had a lot of success over the last four or five years, but I think when I won the Truck race in Canada last fall, it got pretty real,” Elliott says of the moment. “All of a sudden it was like, ‘Okay, you just won in a NASCAR national event. You’re here now.’ And that was a pretty cool feeling, especially to have my mom and dad there with me for the first one.”
Beyond the Truck Series victory, Chase went on to score the final short-track piece missing from his resume by winning the All-American 400 at the Nashville Fairgrounds in November after several near-misses in the event. The win allowed the Dawsonville teenager to complete the Super Late Model “Grand Slam”, becoming the first driver in major short track racing history to win the All-American 400, World Crown 300, Winchester 400 and Snowball Derby in their career. Elliott also scored a third win in the Snowflake in December and won the Alabama 200 at Montgomery Motor Speedway in the fall to further extend his short track mastery.
Despite all his recent success, Elliott still had a lot of uncertainty going into 2014. Longtime sponsor Aaron’s was leaving the program, wanting to focus on a full-time commitment with Brian Vickers and Michael Waltrip Racing, and suddenly, Elliott’s budding career was in limbo.
Until NAPA Auto Parts came along.
“You know, I say it a lot, but I truly would not be able to be doing this right now without the support of NAPA and all the people there that help make this deal possible,” Elliott expressed. “We didn’t know for sure what we would be doing this year, and then all the stuff happened with them over at MWR, and you know, we saw an opportunity with them being a Georgia-based company to get me involved, and it all worked out, sure enough. It’s really cool to have that hometown tie and to represent them during my rookie season in the Nationwide Series.”
That partnership has led to a continuation of the surge that Elliott has been riding to this point. In January, he turned a last-minute decision to race into a second career Super Late Model victory at the season-opening SpeedFest event in Cordele, Georgia, and has been nearly impeccable in the NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) despite being a true rookie this season. In addition to the win at Texas, Elliott has five top ten finishes in his six NNS starts this season, and comes into this weekend’s event at Darlington Raceway leading the championship points by two markers over JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith as well as leading the Sunoco Rookie of the Year race by 12 points over Ty Dillon.
All of this, mind you, is happening while Elliott is working off-track to finish his senior year of high school at King’s Ridge Christian School and working on cross country training to earn his pilot’s license. The 18-year-old says it has been a balancing act (even coming in late to class after boss Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 in February), but has made him wiser in the long run for it.
“I’ll admit, it’s not always been easy to juggle everything,” Elliott says of making his school life and racing career work hand-in-hand. “But I feel like I’ve made it work as best I can, and you know, I really feel that it’s all working out the way it’s supposed to. I mean, look where we are now,” he points out.
The track he visits this week is a track his father had much success at over the years, clinching the Winston Million at Darlington in 1985 and winning there five times, including three Southern 500s. While Chase won’t be racing in the big show this time around, he is confident of what his team can do going into the weekend.
“Although this will be my debut at Darlington, it is still one of my favorite places to watch races at. I can’t tell you the last time I was even at that track. It always seems to put on really good shows, and I’m looking forward to being there this weekend. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun to race at, but definitely a tough one to race at. The biggest thing is going to be getting used to the place as quickly as possible so we can start tuning our car the right way, but I’m confident in my team and my crew chief, Greg Ives, that we can get it right for the race.”
Chase Elliott’s recent success has redefined what “normal” is in his life and his career. No longer is he “just another kid” trying to make it to the next level, and no longer is he just living a dream by competing on the weekends away from the classroom at 180 miles per hour. He’s made it, and that was made evident by his performance over the weekend, a performance that will likely become more and more normal with each passing race the more experience he gets behind the wheel.
His dad had a nickname through the years, “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville”. In recent weeks, fans have taken to calling the young talent “Awesome Chase from that same place”.
It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. But you might want to get used to hearing it. Or at the very least, hearing the name Chase Elliott.
You’ll be hearing quite a lot of it going forward.
Listen in as Jacob Seelman sat down to talk with Chase about his breakthrough win at Texas, his recent successes behind the wheel and racing background, and about his dad, JR Motorsports, and much more: