Daytona 500: How Chase Elliott is primed to chase history

·4 min read

Chase Elliott’s 2020, late-playoff charge a year ago — winning the final two and three of the final five races — delivered him a NASCAR Cup Series title that not only seemingly appeared out of nowhere but sooner than anyone expected.

At 24 years, 11 months and 11 days old, Elliott became the third-youngest champ in history. His first came at essentially the same age as all-time great Jeff Gordon (24-3-11). In 1950, Bill Rexford, 23, set the youth standard for champs.

Elliott’s victory offers NASCAR a much-needed burst of generational change, signifying a full break from the previous era dominated by Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others. That he did it in Houdini fashion — nine-time 2020 victor Kevin Harvick was left with his head spinning — just added to the legend.

And it begs a simple, if presently unanswerable, question:

Is this the start of something big? Like historically big?

Gordon revolutionized NASCAR in the 1990s, a fresh young face from California who helped spark a boom for business. Part of that was his talent. He wasn’t just a marketing ploy, or a nice “feud” participant with old-school stars such as Dale Earnhardt Sr.

He won four Cups, fourth-most all time.

The only three ahead of him — each tied with seven Cup championships — won their first title at an older age than both Gordon and Elliott.

Johnson was 31. Earnhardt Sr. was 29. Richard Petty was 27.

Elliott has the lead on all of them and no matter how unfair it is to put any kind of all-time great expectations on a guy, when you’re only 25 and you walk into Sunday’s Daytona 500 as the reigning champion … well welcome to the spotlight.

“I’ve never been the kind of guy who said, ‘In five years this is what I want to do, or even two years,’” Elliott told Yahoo Sports this week. “It’s one week at a time.

“I just want to be a guy who has the opportunity to win every week. You’re not going to win every week, but if you assert, you set yourself up among the group that can win every week and you do it for many years, then you have the opportunity to do great things.”

Chase Elliott on pit road before NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race qualifying at Daytona International Speedway, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Chase Elliott on pit road before NASCAR Daytona 500 qualifying at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 1 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

It’s a pragmatic approach. It’s also the correct one. And maybe the only one that could take Elliott from youngest champ to legend over the next couple of decades.

If so, then get used to NASCAR turning into some semblance of the Chase Elliott show.

He was already the most popular driver on the circuit (voted so by fans three years running). That is thanks, in part, to his once very popular father, Bill (“Awesome Bill from Dawsonville”) Elliott.

By extending the family dynasty — Bill won the Cup in 1988, plus two Daytona 500s — he fulfilled a prophecy that many hoped Dale Jr. would. (Junior never won the Cup, but he did win a couple of Daytonas.)

Elliott’s personality is more purposeful than colorful. He’s still a small-town kid himself, growing up mostly in Dawsonville, a town of a few thousand in the north Georgia hills. He’s in his mid-20s, active on social media, charismatic in his own right, but he isn’t going to say many headline-inducing things or create antics that draw in the public at large.

If he’s going to do what Gordon did, or any of the others, it will be based on his accomplishments.

And he knows that won’t be easy. He isn’t walking into 2021 thinking he and his team have this sport, or this world, figured out.

To win a NASCAR title these days is to survive a gauntlet and come up big at the biggest of moments. Luck, though, is everywhere. It takes only one blown engine, or getting caught up in someone else’s wreck to derail everything.

Elliott knows just ripping off a streak of titles remains a massive challenge, even in a year when NASCAR will stage additional road track races, in which Elliott has proven extremely proficient. There’s too much competition. Too much parity at the top. Too many other cut-throat competitors.

“The sense of accomplishment is incredible,” Elliott said of winning. “It’s such a small list of guys that have done that. That’s the coolest part about it. I can always go back to that season. It will always be in the history books.”

Is it just one? Or, is it the first of many, like Jeff Gordon many, like even Johnson-Earnhardt-Petty many?

We’ll see. But Chase Elliott has a head start on that second group. He’s also already proven he runs well with the lead.

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