Until this weekend, only twice in Chase Elliott’s relatively short NASCAR career has he started a race worse than 26th.
Never, however, has he been so excited to do so.
While Elliott was awarded a full-time Sprint Cup Series ride by team owner Rick Hendrick in January, Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway will be his first official start.
Elliott, 19, the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, will take over the driving duties of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 team next season when Jeff Gordon steps aside, but he’s doing a handful of Sprint Cup races this season in preparation for the transition.
The younger Elliott has aspired to be a Cup driver since he was old enough to race competitively. On Sunday, his dream begins its transformation to reality.
“I don’t know how excited I feel about (starting) 27th, but at the same time it’s real exciting to making our first Cup race,” said Elliott, who is driving a No. 25 Chevrolet this weekend.
“It’s just crazy how much different of a world this is on this side of things. Just a couple hundredths (of a second) would have had us in the top 24 and a 10th (of a second) would have had you, heck, up near in the teens.”
Sunday’s foray into the Cup series will mark another large stepping stone for Elliott’s NASCAR career but for much of Friday, his debut remained in serious doubt.
Rain threatened to wash out Cup practice and qualifying, but by early afternoon the rain had departed and NASCAR was able to get a practice session and group qualifying completed before darkness fell.
“Part of me had a hard time going to sleep (Thursday night). That part was so mad that I wasn’t too excited about making the drive here in the rain,” Elliott said.
“We were actually talking about if we didn’t get in, we’d go run a short track race. So, I’m glad we couldn’t go do that and we can stay here and race.”
That Elliott should have already considered a backup plan should come as no surprise.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who co-owns Elliott’s Xfinity Series team, said at least part of Elliott’s success comes from his ability to handle almost any situation thrown his way – a remarkable trait for a 19-year-old.
“He has been an observer of the sport for a really long time as a kid going to these races, so I think he understands a lot about the sport,” Earnhardt said. “He is not running into a lot of things that are surprises to him.
“He knows exactly what is coming around every corner, outside the car as much as inside the car. He kind of sees all this stuff coming.”
Elliott has already demonstrated to be mature beyond his years and is his own harshest critic, preferring to look inward when he has performance struggles because he does not question the quality of the teams for which he drives.
“This is all that I have ever wanted to do,” Elliott said. “To have this opportunity is unreal to think about, especially with how quickly it’s come about.
“I think the best thing I can do is to go about this weekend my own way, try to be myself and hopefully just do my job. There is no need to overcomplicate it.”
Last weekend, Earnhardt remarked how when Bill Elliott kicked off his Cup career, there were likely few who paid much attention until his performances began turning heads.
All eyes in NASCAR appear transfixed on the younger Elliott’s debut.
In part that’s because of Elliott’s lineage, but it’s also because of what he’s accomplished on his own, including three victories and a championship as a rookie last season in the Xfinity Series.
Those around him expect him to adapt to his new surroundings without much trouble, even if his Cup debut comes on one of the series’ most difficult tracks to navigate.
“I kind of love it because he’s being challenged in a big way, and I think he’s very capable of living up to that,” Gordon said. “The lack of practice time is going to make it difficult on him.
“With a Hendrick car, his talents and our set-ups, I have all the faith in the world that under normal circumstances that he’d shine this weekend. But it’s certainly going to be a steep learning curve.”
Or just another hurdle Elliott clears in his career.
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