Hallman: Elliott chases his big-star potential

October 25, 2018

The answer: Nobody really knows.

But plenty of us think we know.

When we’re asked how good Chase Elliott’s stock car racing career is going to be, some of us are quick to volunteer an opinion. Count me among those who don’t hesitate. I think he’s going to be great, a bona fide superstar in a sport that can use a new one ASAP.

And I’d like to add that I was not among those who began to doubt the young racer’s abilities earlier this year while he labored onward in his third full season in NASCAR’s top-tier Cup circuit still looking for his first win.

He was over-hyped, his detractors said. He had been labeled as a rising star only because his dad, Bill Elliott (aka Awesome Bill from Dawsonville), had been so popular. He was, they said, a product of NASCAR’s desperate need for a new fan favorite, rushed into Cup racing before he was ready.

Well, NASCAR may be desperate. But I think William Clyde “Chase” Elliott II is going to fill that need.

He got that first victory in August at the Watkins Glen International road course, holding on against relentless competition from veterans Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch. The win was no fluke.

Then, after three top-five finishes in his next seven starts, he won again on the punishing one-mile Dover International Speedway oval. Two races later he notched victory No. 3, this time on the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway oval.

That’s three wins in 11 races, on three vastly different tracks and every victory in legitimate fashion. These weren’t races that fell into the team’s lap.

What’s that? No short-track wins? Oh, right — there are those who doubt the credentials of any driver who hasn’t won on a track less than a mile in length.

Well, consider this: a short-track race may have been the key to Elliott’s rise from a guy who finished second a lot (eight times before he won) to a driver who wasn’t going to let victory slip from his grasp.

The short-track race in question was the October 2017 race at Martinsville Speedway — the paper-clip-shaped half mile that is the site of this Sunday’s First Data 500.

Elliott led 123 of the 500 laps that day, and had his Chevrolet in front with four laps to go when Denny Hamlin, braking late in his Toyota as they entered a turn, hit Elliott from behind. That sent Elliott spinning into the wall, demoting him to a 27th-place finish.

On the slow-paced “cool-down” lap after the race, Elliott pulled alongside Hamlin and ground a fender against Hamlin’s Toyota. The two drivers stopped, climbed from their cars and angrily confronted each other. Officials stepped between them.

Since then, Elliott has had three really good opportunities to win. And he has come home first all three times. After he won for the third time last Sunday in Kansas, Elliott was asked what is different now.

“The difference,” he said, “has been going through some tougher days, having some learning experiences and making our cars faster.”

He is one of the eight drivers eligible to win this year’s NASCAR championship. He will be among the favorites to win this weekend at Martinsville, and a win would propel him to a berth in the Final Four for the season’s last race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Homestead-Miami, they say, is a lot like the 1.5-mile Kansas track where Elliott won his third race. If things fall into place, Elliott could be the tour’s new champion.

Elliott doesn’t have to be champion this year to be a superstar. That will come over time.

I expect him to match, even eclipse, his father’s career marks of 44 Cup wins and a single championship. And maybe Chase can even outdo his father’s record 16 wins of the fan vote for Most Popular Driver. Chase Elliott is widely expected to win that award for the first time this year.

Three reasons to imagine Chase might surpass Awesome Bill:

Chase won for the first time on his 99th start at age 22, Bill won for the first time on his 106th start at age 28.After Bill won for the first time, he went zero-for-15 before winning his second race. Since Chase won his first, he has won two of his next 10 starts.Bill was 33 when he wrapped up his first championship. Chase is 11 years younger as he guns for his first title.

These things don’t necessarily mean Chase Elliott is a better driver than his father, just that he has a head start. And he drives for one of NASCAR’s all-time most successful teams, Hendrick Motorsports.

What’s more, with the prolonged slump of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Elliott has emerged as the de facto lead driver in the Hendrick stable.

And, as former Hendrick superstar Jeff Gordon noted after Chase Elliott’s second win, experiencing victory can change everything for a team that has had lots of near-misses.

“It’s tough when you’ve been so close and it didn’t quite work out,” Gordon said, “but all it takes is a couple of big events like this where you do close it to build that momentum and confidence and continue to go do that.”

I think Chase Elliott is going to continue to go do that.