By NASCAR Wire Service
Since 2000, only two drivers have produced five top-10 finishes through the first eight races of their Sunoco Rookie of the Year seasons.
One is six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
The second, current first-year sensation Chase Elliott.
Elliott will try to keep pace with Johnson’s mark when he goes for his sixth top 10-showing of the season in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway (1 p.m. ET on FOX).
“Richmond has been a special place for me,” Elliott said. “We had a good year last year there on the XFINITY side – we were able to win the fall race and we ran the Sprint Cup race there in the spring and that was one of my first couple Cup starts. So that was neat to get there and run at that track in a Cup car. I’m excited to get back. We had a strong run on the XFINITY side and I think we definitely had a lot of work to do on the Cup side from the spring race, but we made a lot of gains. I learned a lot and I can’t wait to get back there.”
Currently 12th on the Chase Grid on the strength of his five top 10s and two top fives, which he logged in his last two races (fifth at Texas and fourth at Bristol), Elliott would qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs if the regular season ended today. The only rookie to ever make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup before was 2016 Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who achieved the feat in 2006.
Elliott, 19, quickly deflects praise of the successful start to his full-time NSCS career.
“The big thing is we just have fast cars,” the 2014 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion said. “For a guy like me who has a lot to learn and still has a long ways to go, that goes a long way. We’ve had some good cars throughout the year and hopefully we can keep that going, build on it and get a little better.”
The race for rookie of the year is far from over, but Elliott has built a 21-point advantage over fellow heralded youngster Ryan Blaney. The No. 24 Chevrolet maintains neither he nor Blaney worries about anything but winning.
“We want to go and compete for wins,” Elliott said. “We’re not racing to go beat each other. We’re here to try to win the race. However that deal plays out, it plays out.”
Image: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images