Chase Elliott is salvaging Hendrick’s NASCAR season
It has been a bouncy ride for the Hendrick Motorsports gang this NASCAR season.
Concussion-related issues have sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the rest of the year. Inconsistency again squeezed Kasey Kahne out of the Chase. Uncharacteristic miscues have marked an erratic run for six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
And then there’s the kid. Chase Elliott.
He’s a rookie in this high-speed circus, replacing a guy you may have heard of: Jeff Gordon. Team owner Rick Hendrick and Gordon thought so much of him that they handed down Gordon’s No. 24, along with the Chevy ride of course. Chase is also the son of another NASCAR icon, Bill Elliott.
“I love the No. 24,” Gordon said at the start of the season. “I want to see the 24 go on to do great things. I think that our fans want to see the 24 car continue on with the right person and be successful with the right guy. And he’s the right guy.”
Great things? How about moving onto the second round of the Chase?
Elliott is one of only 12 men left standing for a shot at the 2016 Cup title.
Pressure is just a word. The reality is that Elliott was always prepped and ready to go. You grow up around racing, you pick up a few things along the way. Add in natural ability and poise beyond his years, and boom, the perfect storm for success.
Consider this perspective going last weekend into Dover, Del.,where a bad day could have bumped him from the A-list group of 12.
“I think this first round, to me, has been similar to races that we’ve seen throughout the year,” he said. “I guess just kind of regularly. I don’t think the intensity of a lot of the guys that have experience in this deal, I don’t think it has been ramped up quite to the point that it will be depending upon if you make further in.”
Elliott, who turns 21 next month, is definitely going “further in” after finishing third at Dover.
“Really, really cool to move on this weekend, I’m proud of that like I said, this group has been doing a really good job,” Elliott said. “I’m proud of all these guys and we are excited to get on to Charlotte.”
Elliott is still an outlier among a cast of stalwarts that includes Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and the surging Martin Truex Jr. But don’t count him out. By any means.
Elliott has three top-five finishes in the last six races and has finished no worse than 19th in those six starts.
Give Hendrick credit for realizing he had something special in Elliott and giving him the keys to the car.
“Everyone on this stage recognizes his talent,” Hendrick said during a news conference featuring his stout lineup of drivers at the start of the season. “That one day he was going to be ready.”
That day is here.
Truex on fire
There was a time — it seems ages ago — that Truex was considered the nice kid of the block. You liked him, but you really didn’t think he had the temperament to beat you up and steal your lunch money.
Everybody may want to check their pockets.
Truex, a one-man wrecking crew for Furniture Row Racing, is crushing the opposition.
His victory at Dover was his third in five races. He won two of the three races in the first round of the Chase elimination Series.
He has five consecutive top-10 finishes. And if not for a blink-of-an-eye pass at Daytona by Denny Hamlin, he would have won the season’s signature race.
“Think about his year,” said NBC Sports NASCAR analyst Steve Letarte. “Martin Truex Jr. right now needs to be absorbing every second of this. He was inches from winning the Daytona 500, dominates the Coca-Cola 600, wins the Southern 500, those are all the crown jewels.”
Is there a bigger one on the way, like a Cup title? He qualified for the Final Four last year in Homestead, but came up short. Is this the year?
“I can’t even believe it man — it’s just living a dream right now,” Truex said after winning in Dover. “It’s a fairy tale. I don’t even know what to say.”
Truex and his Chevy were beasts taming the Monster Mile, leading a race high 187 laps. He won by almost eight seconds.
Onward to Charlotte this weekend. Did we mention that he has already won there as well this season?
“We’re not messing around I guess,” Truex said. “I don’t know — what else can you say?”
NASCAR traditionalists who long for the days when champions were decided on consistency may be in for some good news.
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said Monday on Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio that the points system could be in for some tweaks.
“One of the things we’re looking at is [in] the first 26 races, are there some additional things we could do for the winner of the regular season,” O’Donnell said. “I think that’s certainly fair for us to look at — and we are.”
Oh boy. Here we go again. (Insert sarcastic fan comment here). NASCAR has tweaked the Chase format various times since its first incarnation in 2004. The current system allots berth to the top 16 drivers based on points, with an additional premium on victories that could bump someone into the top 16.
“That’s the beauty of this format,” O’Donnell said. “You have to be on top of your game. We feel like the first 26 [races] do matter in terms of what you’ve learned, are you carrying any momentum in, and then who can really get hot over the next six weeks and move on.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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