NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott is arguably the face of NASCAR. After breaking his Round of 8 curse, he’s ready to compete for a title to match his father’s.

Chase Elliott has literally driven a championship-winning machine during the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series postseason. In the opening at Darlington Raceway, Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet aesthetically resembled the vehicle his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson drove to the fourth of his record seven NASCAR titles. As the season ends at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC), Elliott’s traditionally blue numeral will don shades of yellow in tribute to the numbers that Johnson has represented on the Cup circuit since 2002.

As one championship era ends at Phoenix, another could potentially begin. Sunday will mark the final race of Johnson’s legendary career. A future in IndyCar Racing awaits him, as does de facto instant entry to NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte as soon as he’s eligible. The duel in the desert also marks the first race that can potentially end with Elliott hoisting the Cup Series’ trophy in victory lane.

Set to turn 25 in three weeks, Elliott’s NASCAR resume to date is one that many older drivers would give an arm and a leg for. He has earned 10 Cup Series victories, sat on the pole for a pair of Daytona 500s, won at historic Darlington Raceway at a mere 18 years old, took home the latest All-Star Race, won a Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series championship, and has developed a niche for road courses, winning the last four events at such tracks (a mark bested only by Jeff Gordon). Elliott is also the two-time defending winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, breaking the 15-year stranglehold the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. held on the title.

“I don’t know because I’ve never done it,” Elliott said in the leadup to Phoenix earlier this week when asked if he ever reflected on his legacy. “I hate to say that, but I just don’t. I think it’s one of those things where you don’t know. I don’t know what (a Cup Series title) feels like or the emotions of it or what it would bring or wouldn’t bring or whatever because I’ve never achieved that before.”

“I just think to be thinking about those things and not the things that are going to make our car go fast on Sunday is just the wrong, in my opinion, my approach right now, is the wrong thing. I’m just all eyes. My mindset and focus is what is going to make you go fast. That is what matters on Sunday. That is going to be the thing that either gives you a chance or doesn’t. The rest of it right now just doesn’t matter. That’s where I’m at.”

Elliott’s success makes it almost a shame that his career is forever connected to legends of the sport. He’s been teammates with the semi-retiring Johnson since 2015 and raced for Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide/Xfinity Series team (winning the aforementioned title in 2014). Of course, the first thing many know about Elliott is that he’s the son of Bill, a winner of 45 races on NASCAR’s national levels, the 1988 Cup title, and 16 Most Popular Driver titles.

“I’m very lucky. My dad obviously has had great success over the years, has been around this deal for a long time. Obviously, Jimmie is a great one to lean on, too,” Elliott said of the mentorship and help he has had over his career. “The big thing from talking to dad that I feel like he’s kind of mentioned is to just enjoy these moments because these aren’t things you can take for granted. You don’t know when your last race win is. You don’t what tomorrow brings. Nothing’s guaranteed, right?”

Elliott has more or less shut down the idea that nepotism earned him a ride at one of auto racing’s most iconic organizations with his performance on the track. The ultimate sign of perseverance gained throughout his time on the Cup asphalt perhaps came in the Round of 8’s finale at Martinsville last week. This de facto semifinal round had often served as a thorn in Elliott’s side, an impenetrable barrier to the status of a legend. But he not only led 236 of 500 laps in last weekend’s Xfinity 500, but both he and his team also overcame what could’ve been a disastrous visit to pit road to recover for a win. The No. 9’s jackman was initially penalized for jumping over the wall too soon, but his quick reset and the team’s appeal caused NASCAR to rescind the penalty. Elliott would take care of the rest, leaving pit road fourth and later passing fellow go-or-go-home racer Martin Truex Jr. for the lead with 44 to go.

No one could rationally fault Elliott for not earning a Cup Series title just yet. Some of the biggest young phenoms in the sport have struggled to get off to a fast start on the stat sheet…some never find it at all. Countless wunderkinds have been labeled “The Next Jeff Gordon” before fading away into racing oblivion. Elliott maintained early consistency, but it took more than two full seasons to earn his first Cup Series victory, finally doing so near the Finger Lakes at the Watkins Glen event in 2018. Being attached to so many legends of the sport only raised the temperature of Elliott’s pressure cooker.

Even in preparing for his first title, Elliott dealt with questions of the past. Irony has lingered over the No. 9’s pit box all weekend. Not only did Bill capture his Cup title in the same number, but it was a championship won alongside the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers…each of whom took care of their end of the bargain in the World Series and NBA Finals respectively.

Elliott is more than likely used to these questions and has adapted by smiling and taking them in stride. He was impressed with the Los Angeles championship connection, even if it meant the Dodgers eliminating his beloved Atlanta Braves en route.

Yet, he has refused to fully comment on the coincidence…if only because he hasn’t earned one of his own just yet.

“I feel like it’s so hard. I just remember getting the question of, What is it going to feel like when you win that first race? What is that going to be like? How cool is that going to be to you?” he said.

“I always had a really hard time answering that because I’d never done it before. So I don’t know. I think that’s the same answer now. Until you achieve a moment like that, that obviously is very meaningful to you, I think it’s really hard to put a stamp of what it means or how it feels or the emotions that come with it. I think I’d be speaking out of turn to really give you an answer because I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Elliott has spent his career becoming his own racer, writing his own legend. It’s partially why he hasn’t leaned on the seven-time Johnson for advice in working through championship weekend, though he did take time to acknowledge Johnson’s footprint on the sport by calling him a “champion on and off the track”.

Even if Elliott comes up short on Sunday, he has a bit of a failsafe comeback in that there will probably be plenty of opportunities for him to have another go at it. But if he’s unwilling to use his racing tree as an excuse or a crutch, you can guarantee he won’t be using youth. Elliott is all too aware that his first trip to the final four could well be his last.

“You don’t know. Hell, I don’t know what tomorrow is. I don’t think anybody does,” Elliott said. “To sit here and promise myself things that I can’t promise myself, I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball, right?

“I do know this is a moment you have to enjoy because you don’t know with your last race win is, you don’t know when your last day is, when the last Championship 4 is for you, all of the above. I’m just trying to enjoy the whole moment and make the most of whatever Sunday brings, put all the emphasis and preparation in the things that are going to give us the best chance on Sunday. To me, that’s my preparation for certain situations and probably most importantly the right decisions on the car to get our car balance as close as we can to start the race. All my emphasis is there, and just trying to enjoy and embrace this time, make the most of it.”

There are few guarantees on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit. Chase Elliott not looking for a crutch and an excuse has provent to be a rare exception on the asphalt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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