LOUDON, N.H. — He had already been racing for half his life, running circles around the competition and winning championships in the Mini Max go-kart series in Colorado and the Georgia Asphalt Pro Late Model Series, before he finally became street legal at age 16.
But Chase Elliott, the 18-year-old son of former NASCAR champion and recent Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott, feared he had spoiled his chance to earn his driver’s license with a poor effort on the parallel parking portion of the test.
“I was pretty sure I failed my driver’s license test,’’ said Elliott. “I messed up, bad, when I was backing in. But it was cool to be able to get my license after being racing for so long. I was just as excited as any 16-year-old to get my driver’s license.
“I was the happiest guy on earth there for a couple of weeks.’’
Consider Elliott’s exuberance when the Nationwide Series rookie driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports team recorded the first series victory of his career at Texas Motor Speedway April 4. He was still doing a Texas two-step when he went to Darlington the following week and led a season-high 52 laps in his No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet to record his second consecutive win.
“It was just a crazy few weeks, obviously,’’ said Elliott, who will enter Saturday’s Sta-Green 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway ranked third in series points with 562, behind leader and JRM teammate Regan Smith (577).
“Honestly, I was still in disbelief after Texas when we got to Darlington,’’ Elliott said. “So I still hadn’t got over the first one when we got the second one.’’
Considered a next-generation star-in-the-making, Elliott remains the only two-time winner in the Nationwide Series through the first 16 races of the season.
“Chase has a great appreciation for where he’s at and how he got there,’’ said Earnhardt, his car owner. “He’s a really humble, quiet, mild-mannered person and very easy to work with, which is a huge, huge relief. He’s doing all the right things, even outside the car.
“He has a real potential to be one of the biggest stars in the sport one day. And I expect that will happen. I expect he will put his mark on the sport and leave a great impression.’’
He seemed to do precisely that when he went to Richmond and nearly made it three in a row, but wound up finishing runner-up to Kevin Harvick. In the eight races since, Elliott’s best result has been a pair of fourth-place finishes at Iowa Speedway and Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
“It’s very, very cool to have those couple of wins, but we’d like to get back to that form,’’ Elliott said. “We’ve had our struggles since then and certainly had our struggles before those two wins, too, but we’re all working really hard to get back to form.’’
These were the topsy-turvy moments Elliott’s father warned him would invariably come during the course of a season, a career.
“I told Chase early on, ‘You do it for yourself. Don’t do it for me. I don’t care. It isn’t my life to live. It’s your opportunity and if you do this, you need to understand what it’s all about,’ ” Bill Elliott said. “You understand the ups and downs of this sport, because it parallels life in a lot of ways. This is more of an emotional roller coaster because you can be on such a high one day and such a low the next. That’s the thing that you try to instill.
“That’s the only thing at this point and time in my career I can help him with.’’
When Chase initially approached his father at age 7 and expressed his desire to go racing, Bill told his son, unequivocally, it wasn’t his decision to make. Chase needed the approval of his mother, Cindy.
“The way I recall it, he came to me and said he wanted to race and I said, ‘That’s between you and your mother,’ ” Bill Elliott said. “I felt like she had to help make the decision to where she was OK with it. If she was fine with it, I was fine with it.’’
“She wanted me to play golf,’’ Chase said.
But it was clear Chase had racing in his blood, running the same number (9) his father made so famous when he was a 16-time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award.
Once Chase got his mother’s blessing, both parents jumped on board. When Bill retired from full-time racing 10 years ago, he and his wife sold their Georgia home and moved to Colorado, where they had vacationed, and followed Chase around when he started racing go-karts in the Mini Max series at age 8.
“We spent two years doing that and, man, those were two great years out there,’’ Bill Elliott recalled, wistfully. “He raced go-karts and that was so much fun. We didn’t run a whole lot of races, but it was just a fun series. We all kind of traveled together. We had a little motorhome, would go to the track and stay in it, and had a really good guy who worked on our cars and had a heck of a lot of fun.’’
At no time, however, did father pressure son to perform. “I didn’t want to be a soccer dad,’’ Bill said. In fact, when Chase’s car chief began grousing about how the 9-year-old driver wasn’t running the optimal line at a go-kart race, Bill quickly, but discreetly, intervened.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Let me ask you something. What were you thinking when you were 9 years old?’ I just said, ‘Let him have fun; let him be a kid.’ ”
And that, it seems, has always been the balance Elliott’s parents have tried to maintain, even as Chase’s career took off on a fast track when he accumulated eight championships ranging from the Mini Max Division in Colorado to the Georgia Asphalt Pro Late Model Series.
At 13, he became the youngest winner in the ASA Southeast Asphalt Tour. By 15, he became the youngest driver to start a race and youngest pole winner in K&N Pro Series East history, leading the series for the first five races of his rookie campaign before finishing ninth in the points after recording six top-10 finishes in 12 events.
At no time, though, did Elliott ever feel like he missed out on being a teenager.
“I feel like I’ve had a good balance all the way through school,’’ he said. “The way I look at things, I’ve always had buddies who have been supportive of my racing. I’ve always enjoyed being gone and traveling and, for me, I think it’s a blast.
“I think it’s been a good balance of being gone and being home and having good buddies who respect that. I’m definitely happy with that side of things.’’
Balancing his academics and racing career was a bit of a juggling act, evidenced by his graduation in May from King’s Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta, Ga., which fell on the same weekend as his Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway.
Elliott’s parents made certain he didn’t miss out on his graduation, flying him to and from Iowa to make the Saturday morning ceremony. He flew back to Iowa and qualified sixth for the next day’s race, where he finished fourth.
“That’s a time in your life you don’t get back,’’ Chase said. “And I would’ve hated to have missed it.’’
Although his parents have encouraged him to enjoy his life as a teenager, Chase has had to make some sacrifices, such as missing his senior prom. “He said he had a date with The Lady in Black,’’ Bill said with a chuckle, referring to Chase’s winning race at Darlington.
“What I told him, even before this year, was that it was going to get serious enough, soon enough,’’ Bill Elliott said. “I think that’s where you’re at today. I mean, it’s just part of what he’s going to have to experience and go through it and deal with the different ups and downs.’’
As bright as it appears, Chase Elliott’s future still remains unsettled. He signed a contract with car owner Rick Hendrick three years ago, but is not certain what his future will hold beyond this season.
“That’s really not my decision,’’ he said. “My job is to go and do the best I can every weekend and leave it up to Mr. Hendrick to decide where he feels like I belong later on down the road.
“It’s not for me to stress about and I try not to look into it, because it’s really not necessary. I just try to focus on what I’ve got going on right now.
“I feel like JR Motorsports has been a good place for me and I’m fortunate to be in the position I’m in right now, so I’m just trying to make the most of the position I’m in right now and let the future figure itself out.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.