With a new year and a new car number, Chase Elliott has a clean slate for 2018.
The 22-year-old second-generation driver finished second five times during his sophomore season with Hendrick Motorsports. But that first victory on NASCAR’s top tour continued to elude him.
While some drivers would welcome a second-place finish, Elliott has mixed emotions about his results.
“It depends on how you finish second,” Elliott said. “Some of our second-place finishes weren’t disappointing because we might not have deserved to finish second.
“Others, where I felt like we had opportunities to win and ran second, those were the really disappointing days. Those are the ones that you really try to think through to understand what happened and what to do to try and prevent it the next go-around. They’re all different.”
Four of his five runner-up finishes came in the 10-race Playoff. In the first six postseason races, Elliott finished second three times and enjoyed an average result of 6.17, easily advancing to the Round of 8. However, Elliott’s hopes for his first Championship 4 appearance came to a crashing halt at Martinsville Speedway, where he led 123 laps before Denny Hamlin dumped him. Elliott finished 27th.
At Phoenix, two races later, Elliott returned the favor. He hasn’t spoken to Hamlin since—and doesn't really feel the need to.
“What happened has happened,” Elliott said. “You can’t take things back. I’m not responsible for his actions. I’m responsible for mine. That’s the way I see it, and we’ll see what the future brings.”
From the crowd reaction following the incidents at Martinsville and Phoenix, that future will include an expanding fan base for the young racer. Elliott’s stock is rising, and he’ll use that support as a catalyst entering his third season in Cup.
“It was crazy to see the fire from people—and it fires me up, too,” Elliott said. “And I think it fires the team up. We want to keep getting better and carry some of that fire over into next season if we can.”
Still, if Elliott regrets anything about his run-in with Hamlin, it wasn’t as much about missing out on his first win at Martinsville as it was losing his chance to compete for the championship.
“The biggest piece of that is what could have been, to have an opportunity to win that race and lock (yourself) into Homestead,” Elliott said. “The stakes are high. Those three weeks leading into Homestead are huge. We were in a position where we didn’t necessarily have to win to make it to Homestead, but almost, probably was going to have to win one of those three weeks.
“I had opportunities at Phoenix and Martinsville, and I’m definitely proud of that, because those tracks are important each year with how the schedule falls.”
Although 2018 will bring change for Elliott, he appears ready for the challenge.
Next Monday and Tuesday, he is scheduled to shake down the new Chevrolet Camaro during a Goodyear tire test at Texas Motor Speedway. Elliott and Jimmie Johnson and will welcome two new teammates to the Hendrick Motorsports campus this year—Alex Bowman and William Byron.
After sharing driving duties with Jeff Gordon during Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s medical leave in 2016, Bowman inherits the No. 88 Chevrolet. Byron, NASCAR’s current Xfinity Series champion, replaces Kasey Kahne.
And after two seasons of competing under the No. 24, Elliott’s car will carry the familiar No. 9 in 2018—a number that his family has enjoyed great success with in the past. Four of Elliott’s five Xfinity wins and the 2014 title came behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevy.
His father, Bill Ellliott, won the 1988 Cup championship and 34 races in the No. 9 Ford owned by Harry Melling. The elder Elliott scored four additional victories when he revived the number while driving for Ray Evernham from 2001-2003.
“I just think it’s a good fit,” Elliott said. “Anybody who has followed my career at all identifies me and my family, my years in the Xfinity Series and short track cars, with the No. 9. It just fits.
“It’s going to be fun with all the change next year at HMS. I think our crowd is prepared and certainly trying to set forth a plan to have the future in good hands. I think William and Alex are going to do a good job next year. They’ve proven they know what they’re doing and know how to win—and I expect them to do just that.”
Elliott is pleased with how his relationship has evolved with Alan Gustafson and the team. Over the past two years, he has developed considerable respect for the veteran crew chief and the systems in place at Hendrick Motorsports.
“I think the way Alan does things are the way that they need to be done,” Elliott said. “I believe in how we lay out our weeks, how we do our meetings, how we get together and talk, how we don’t talk sometimes. We just don’t talk the talk, we try to speak when it’s going to mean something. I put a lot of trust in the process he’s created. Frankly, we’re not going to change things. I just hope that we do it better.
“Our team really ended the season disappointed for the opportunities we missed over those final weeks and not making it to Homestead after being so close a couple of times. But to run like we did, the way we did over those last 10 weeks, was better than I’ve ever run in the Cup Series to this point. It was a lot of fun to be able to run like that.
“To be able to compete for wins, run up front, come down pit road and have the pit stops that we did. Everything was clicking pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good. I think we’ll have good things to build on for next year. I think we’re in a good place.”