JOLIET, Ill. — Kevin Harvick considered the list of young drivers often suggested as NASCAR’s next big stars and replacements for Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Harvick suggested that only one prospect truly could hook a new generation of fans.
“NASCAR needs Chase Elliott to win,” Harvick said this summer. “Chase Elliott is the tie to the traditional NASCAR fan. It’s the only shot they’ve got with the traditional NASCAR fan. His dad. The history and heritage of the sport. There isn’t anybody else in the lineup that I can think of.”
Elliott hasn’t yet reached Junior-levels of popularity — or even Danica Patrick as she nears the stock-car exit ramp — but the 21-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver just might be the next one to carry the banner as NASCAR’s most popular driver.
First, Elliott wants to hold the checkered flag for a victory lap at a Cup race.
Elliott had the race of his season at NASCAR’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, matching his career-best finish of second, behind championship favorite Martin Truex Jr. He led 42 laps, the most since he was in front for 106 at Phoenix before he faded to 12th. Elliott stayed strong this time and even won the second stage, jumping to sixth in the standings with two races left before the playoff field is cut to 12.
Elliott has yet to win a Cup race in 68 career starts and heads to a New Hampshire track where he has not finished better than 11th in three career starts. The cover of the New Hampshire race program nonetheless shows Elliott and Kyle Larson in sunglasses with the headline, “The Future is Bright: Elliott and Larson to Carry NASCAR Torch.”
Larson was fifth at Chicagoland and is second in the standings. Both drivers seem a lock to advance to the second round and from there, anything can happen.
NASCAR surely would love a duel between two 20-somethings that could turn into a rivalry for years.
Elliott, a two-time Daytona 500 pole winner, could have a breakthrough in two weeks at Dover, where twice he has finished third. He had two third-place finishes in the first round last year, then sunk in the second when he finished 33rd, 31st and 12th.
“I did feel like we peaked about this time last year,” he said. “But this isn’t last year, so it really doesn’t matter.”
What does matter is that Elliott is flashing the potential of becoming a champion. He has been in the Hendrick Motorsports development program since 2011, when he was a freshman in high school, and won the 2014 championship in what is now the Xfinity Series. Elliott was known in racing long before his first race, the little kid hanging around the race track with his famous dad. Elliott will switch from the No. 24 to the No. 9 next season in a nod to his father, 1988 NASCAR champion Bill Elliott.
Bill Elliott won NASCAR’s most popular driver award a whopping 16 times, and it’s that link to the past — and excitement for the future — that has drivers like Harvick convinced Chase’s success is key for any type of NASCAR’s needed resurgence.
Elliott still might be too young to truly challenge Truex or former champions ahead of him in the standings such as Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch for the title. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Elliott’s teammate, is hoping to make NASCAR history with an eighth title.
“We need to be better than what we’ve been in the past,” Elliott said. “Obviously, have some work to do to get to that bunch that won the race. Aside from them, I think we were competitive to the rest of the field.”
Dan Gelston is an Associated Press writer.