By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
17 years ago Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a talented, young up-and-coming driver, fresh off of a championship in the NASCAR XFINITY (then Busch) Series, who had a very famous last name which helped push expectations to an unreasonable level. Sound familiar? If so, it’s probably because it’s nearly the exact same scenario that Chase Elliott finds himself in as he heads into his maiden voyage in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
On Tuesday at Daytona 500 Media Day, Earnhardt hit the topic of his new teammate, Elliott and the difficulty of trying to climb the NASCAR ladder behind the shadow of a famous last name.
“You know, I don’t really think he’s going to face any difficult challenges as far as being in the shadow of his father and whatever that entails. It could be different for him. But that’s not really a challenge,” Earnhardt explained. “I mean, there’s some advantages to that, as well. You sort of take the good with the bad as that goes.”
According to Earnhardt, who has been down this road before, Elliott will face struggles in other areas as he moves from the NASCAR XFINITY Series to being a full-time Sprint Cup Series competitor.
“The only thing that I think I struggled with was just the amount of work you’re doing,” Earnhardt said. “That significantly ramps up when you go from the XFINITY Series to the Sprint Cup Series. He’s going to be asked to be in all these places not related to driving racecars. You’re like, Man, you know, I don’t want to do this, I want to drive the car. I came to drive. I’m here to race.
“He’s going to find that he’s going to be busy these Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. There’s going to be weeks that will be running in a blur. You’re going to be flying here, flying there. It’s going to be a lot of inconvenience. You’re going to be in situations where you’re talking in front of people that you don’t know, you don’t know why you’re there, what you’re supposed to be talking about.”
Earnhardt would go on to think back to the expectations he faced going into his rookie season in 2000, and as he described it, it’s enough to make a driver blush.
“Yeah, I mean, you’re almost embarrassed by the attention because you don’t feel like it’s really deserved because you haven’t done anything yet, in your mind,” Earnhardt said. “You haven’t accomplished these things. You see the level of attention that drivers get when you’re growing up and you’re around the sport as a young kid. You see what they do to get that attention. Then you come in and it just seems like it’s more than you deserve.
“I think that’s why you kind of shy away from it or try to talk the media off the shelf a little bit and talk things down. You want to back up and reel it in a little bit because you just don’t feel like you deserve it. You don’t want people to put these expectations up there that are unreasonable ’cause it makes the pressure a lot more difficult to understand and handle.”
Elliott, in his brief NASCAR career has been very even-keeled. You could almost call Elliott a methodical robot, and some even question if the young driver is even having any fun. Earnhardt weighed in on the focused Elliott that we all see from week to week.
“I think the one thing that he’s probably worried about is perception,” Earnhardt said.
“He’s very focused,” Earnhardt continued. “He wants people to know he’s very focused. We’ve seen his interviews. When he doesn’t do well in the XFINITY Series, he puts it on his shoulders. He’s really, really way too hard on himself. But he just wants people to understand that he’s committed, he’s a hard worker, and he’s here to accomplish his dreams and goals and win races and championships. He doesn’t want people to lose sight of that or make assumptions that he’s taking things for granted, I guess.”
Earnhardt put up two victories early in his rookie campaign, but struggled mightily down the stretch of the 2000 season. It took Earnhardt a few years to really work his way into a potential championship threat. Luckily for Elliott, he will have Earnhardt’s wealth of knowledge to pull from this season, and the seasons yet to come, which may ultimately help him pull through very quickly.
Image: Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images