At the age of 20, there’s a lot of anticipation – and expectations – riding on Chase Elliott’s shoulders. Given his success already (won the 2014 Xfinity Series championship), not to mention his famous genes (son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott) and being the hand-picked choice to replace Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet, it’s likely success in the Sprint Cup Series will come.
But let’s not put Elliott out there too far, too soon. Let’s not put overly high expectations upon him too quickly. Let’s not anoint him the 2016 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year when he’ll have at least three other tough contenders. Most importantly, let’s not claim Elliott will win the 2016 Sprint Cup championship right out of the box.
Frankly, it’s likely Elliott will have at least some struggles in his rookie season in NASCAR’s premier series. That’s normal and expected of young drivers, even those with the immense talent and natural skills behind the wheel that Elliott possesses. There’ll be plenty of pressure placed upon him to prove himself against NASCAR’s elite drivers. There will be additional pressure placed upon him because he’ll be driving for Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR’s most successful team in Sprint Cup history (11 championships, 240 race wins).
There’ll be even more pressure placed upon him to essentially hold his own with teammates such as six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, as well as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 13 years running (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), and also Kasey Kahne. There’ll also be pressure placed upon Elliott simply because he’s replacing one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. Those are massive shoes to fill for anybody, no matter if your last name is Elliott or Smith or Jones or Doe.
I’ve been around NASCAR racing for more than 20 years; I’ve been around motorsports as a whole for nearly 40 years. I can honestly say that during that time, and across all forms of motorsports, I can’t think of another driver who has shown me the maturity, talent and ability to contain himself as much as Elliott.
One of my friends remarked to me that Elliott is like a 40-year-old multi-champion trapped in the body of a young man who still isn’t legally able to drink alcohol. In a way, Elliott is somewhat of an old soul. He races with an old school style very reminiscent of his legendary father Bill, as well as Gordon and perhaps Tony Stewart in his prime.
Sure, the younger Elliott wasn’t even born when Bill won his lone Sprint Cup championship in 1988, and only four of his father’s 44 career wins came after Chase came into the world in 1995. But Chase couldn’t have had a better role model – and even more so, a better teacher – than Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.
Yet, Bill also experienced struggles in his career, particularly in the waning years of a tenure that lasted all or part of 37 seasons and 828 Sprint Cup starts. Just look at his record from 2004 through his final race in 2012: zero wins, zero top-fives and just one top-10 finish in his last 97 Cup starts. Chase will naturally lean upon his father to help him with all the good that is to come, but he’ll also have to lean on dear old dad to help get him through the times that discouraging, frustrating and intimidating.
Jimmie Johnson once said you have to learn how to lose before you can win, and that analysis fits Chase Elliott perfectly. Sure, in a perfect world, he’ll win the season-opening Daytona 500 and go on to win 10 races and ultimately the 2016 Sprint Cup championship.In reality, though, he’ll likely get caught up in one of Daytona’s infamous wrecks and likely finish 30th or lower. He’ll likely not reach Victory Lane for at least a year or two, and probably won’t even make the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs also for at least a year or two.
One thing I’ve keenly noticed about Elliott since he burst upon the Xfinity Series scene is his knack to soak up information like a sponge. He’s like a computer processor: information is input into him and he stores it until it’s ready to be used or is applicable to a situation he’s facing.But at the same time, he may want to keep that sponge handy for other purposes: like cleaning up some of the inevitable messes and even tears that may flow as he goes through growing pains and learning curves.
Still, all-in-all, Elliott will indeed become a big star and champion some day. Let’s just hope he doesn’t try to do it too quickly, or that people push their sometimes unrealistic expectations upon him before he’s ready.Sure, there’s plenty of buzz and excitement and anticipation about what Elliott will do in the Sprint Cup Series. That’s natural.But don’t push him or force the issue. Let him develop and evolve at his own rate and pace, and he’ll be just fine in due time.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.