By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Editor’s note: Motorsports Tribune will be previewing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season for the full-time drivers in the series leading into February’s 61st annual running of the Daytona 500.
Years in Cup: 3
Career Wins: Three
Biggest Accomplishment: 2014 Xfinity Series champion
NASCAR fans alike have been anticipating Chase Elliott to have a true breakthrough season, where he finally win races. People however tend to forget that Elliott finished 10th and fifth in the standings in his first two seasons. This past campaign, he came with a new identity and indeed shut his critics by winning three races, becoming Chevrolet’s number one guy.
Now entering his fourth full season at Hendrick Motorsports, Elliott has become a prime contender for race wins on a weekly basis and will continue to do so. Despite having early success, the sport’s newest Most Popular Driver described last season as his best, but isn’t sure what the future holds because his Cup career has gone so fast with three wins (all in 2018), four poles, 33 top-fives and 59 top-10s in 113 starts to his name.
“Well, the first two were ‑‑ I had some ups and downs, I guess, obviously last year being the best of the three,” said Elliott. “It’s kind of hard to believe that this will be year four. It’s gone by really fast.
“But yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow, much less in four years, so we’ll cross that bridge as it approaches. Hopefully I’m employed and can come see y’all in the media center after some Sundays.”
While he ended up sixth in points, Elliott had some of his greatest performances to date. Most notably, his long awaited maiden victory at Watkins Glen, when he became aggressive to hold off a hard charging and the sport’s new road king Martin Truex, Jr. in the closing laps, and led the 52 of 90 laps to get the win.
Outside of the sport’s most positive moment of 2018, Elliott was also the class of the field among the Chevrolet drivers, and by a landslide. During the summer stretch, whether it’s a short track, intermediate, superspeedways or a road course, Elliott put out competitive runs from Loudon to Darlington where he scored six consecutive top-10s, four of them being inside the top-five that included his Watkins Glen victory.
Entering the playoffs, Elliott was viewed as Chevrolet’s strongest contender thanks to that momentum. That’s where he scored major triumphs at Dover and Kansas, that got him deep into the playoffs and poised of making the Championship 4.
However, a 23rd at ISM Raceway thanks to him being collected in a multi-car crash in Turn 3 denied him a championship opportunity. Although he finished seventh at Homestead for his 21st top-10 of 2018, Elliott wound up sixth.
Elliott added it was nice to get some wins under his belt, but he’s going into 2019 on a fresh note.
“I think it’s nice to have won a couple races. I’m not sure how much of that you can really ride into the next year,” said Elliott. “It’s kind of a fresh start in a lot of ways. I mean, I think definitely there was nothing negative about the wins and things. I obviously wish we could have finished a little stronger those last handful, but it’s hard to piggy‑back off of a win and the month of, what was it, September‑October and then continue that in the end of February. But we’ll try our best and try to get rolling.”
Since moving up in the Cup Series, Elliott only had one man calling the shots, and that’s Alan Gustafson, who said the gameplan this coming season won’t be any different than in previous years as they seek for improvements on a race-by-race basis, which was shown at the end of the season despite certain outcomes being against the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
“I think the message is the same, but we always try to adapt and improve,” said Gustafson. “We try to challenge ourselves everyday to get better. We certainly can’t do the same thing we did and be successful we are going to have to improve on that. I think that is our mindset as always.
“If I look back on last year that is one thing, we did on the No. 9 really well, we got better every week and ultimately it showed up at the end of the season when we were able to come from really a pretty dismal start to a pretty decent finish. And we just did that by improving every day. There wasn’t one thing. We didn’t wake up one day and said ‘this is what we were missing’.
“We just got a little bit every day. We’ve got to maintain. That is part of the strategy. That part of our game plan can’t change. We’ve got to keep that philosophy intact, but we’ve always got to push ourselves to be better.”
He added that Elliott isn’t a driver that puts competitors into bad situations and has become well composed, giving him the edge of competing for race victories in any circuit that has other drivers thinking twice of how to race the 23-year-old veteran.
“I think I’ve seen him go through… you know his talent has always been really good. He has been really skilled from the start,” said Gustafson. “I feel like from the first race we had him we felt like we could win. In all actuality, if’s and but’s we probably should have won some races before last season. But I’ve seen some of those things that I’ve seen change is he races people really well. He doesn’t take anything that really isn’t his real estate or force people in bad positions. I think he has been taken advantage of a few times because of that and I think that has frustrated him. I’ve seen that change in him.
“He certainly races some people that kind of consistently have not given him the same respect he has adjusted how he races them. I think that is a good thing and a good idea. Certainly, helps his performance. You can’t consistently come out on the bad end of deals or altercations or whatever. He has adjusted to that and I think that is something I certainly see from him.
“That process has given him a little bit of an edge. I think the people now he has raced the guys that run up front pretty much every week enough where they know what he is and what he’s about. I certainly think they know he is going to be there week in and week out, they better think twice if they are going to do something that might be a little bit questionable.”
Elliott has confidence on Gustafson and each season their chemistry have grown with a simple approach, focusing on what it’ll take to get them to the top of the NASCAR ladder instead of being best pals.
“Yeah, it’s definitely nice. I have a lot of confidence in him, and nice to feel from his end it’s mutual,” said Elliott. “I think that goes a long way. But our relationship really has been pretty simple.
“As I’ve told a lot of people, I kind of let his do his thing and he lets me do mine, and we really just go about our business that way. Our friendship has grown, I think, over the past couple years. We’re by no means best friends. I think he would tell you the same thing.
“But we work well together, and I think that we enjoy the competition aspect at a similar pace, and he and I, I feel like, view a lot of things the same way from that aspect, and when you’re working with somebody and you’re in the roles that he and I are both in, I’m not real sure that there’s a much better fit or a better way to go about it.
“We keep things very simple or as simple as we possibly can, and we believe in our process of how we prepare for races, and yeah, look forward to doing it some more with him this year.”