Ever since Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement last April, NASCAR, its fans and the media wondered who would be the “next Dale Jr.” Who will grab at the opportunity to become that mainstream star who will not only be popular within NASCAR but can be marketable outside of the sport where non-NASCAR fans would know who he is?
That is something NASCAR has struggled to produce. Dale Jr. is someone who has become a household name, as well as Jeff Gordon, but there hasn’t been anyone else. Jimmie Johnson is a seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion and is one of the greatest NASCAR drivers in history, but there aren’t too many people outside of NASCAR who would know who he is or even recognize him walking down the street.
Gordon is retired and Dale Jr. will be joining him in a few weeks, so someone is going to need to take on that role and lead NASCAR into the next generation. And after what happened at the end of Martinsville, that person is Chase Elliott.
Elliott had a similar upbringing to Dale Jr. Chase’s father was a NASCAR legend as well. Bill Elliott and his family team took it to everyone in NASCAR back in the 80s and was dominant on superspeedways and the bigger tracks. A one-time champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner, Elliott once came back from two laps down (under green) to win at Talladega. At the time, it was the fastest 500 mile race in the world. In that 1985 season, Elliott won the Winston Million, which was winning three of four of the Daytona 500, Winston 500 at Talladega, Coke 600 and Southern 500. Elliott won all but the 600-miler and at a time where race winners were paid about $60k, winning a million dollars was a lot of money.
After Bill retired, he helped Chase get started in racing. Chase had the racing genes but quickly proved that he could belong on his own terms. Ever since Chase got in NASCAR as a 17-year-old in 2013, Bill has largely stayed out of the spotlight and let his son make his own name in the sport.
But still, while Chase had to live up to what his father did, he also had to live up to another legend in Jeff Gordon. Gordon, one of the greatest in the sport, retired in 2015 (apart from filling in for Dale Jr. in 2016) and Elliott took over the #24 car Gordon made famous.
So while Chase Elliott had two big shoes to fill, he quickly became a fan favorite. Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon fans from past years saw a driver they were connected to and could root for. Chase is young, talented, a class-act on and off the track and has a personality that can be appreciated by those on and off the track.
That was significant in what was maybe his toughest test as a young driver. After being wrecked by Denny Hamlin and cost him a shot at his first career MENCS win and a chance at a championship, the 21-year-old Elliott was mature way beyond his years in his response.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 29, 2017
Elliott could have responded to Hamlin in many ways. He could’ve gotten into a fight and take some swings at him, he could’ve cursed up and down on national TV and would have been justified in doing that. But instead, Elliott took the “don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all approach” and left it at that. That doesn’t mean that Elliott didn’t confront him (he did) and Elliott won’t pay him back at some point (he may) but Elliott took this better than many. And this is coming from someone who was leading this year’s Daytona 500 before running out of fuel with a couple laps to go, so he’s had disappointments this season.
Most importantly, Elliott knew he had the fans behind him and let them do the talking for him by booing Hamlin. With each week that goes by, Elliott has more and more fans to the point where he is already a superstar. And he will be getting a sizable portion of Junior Nation when Dale Jr. retires.
It’s like a movie and Elliott is the ultimate underdog. Just when we thought he could win, something happens that keeps him from winning and just heightens the tension and drama. In Elliott’s two years of full-time competition, he has six 2nd place finishes. And that doesn’t include just missing out on the Daytona 500, which he was the pole sitter and led until a couple laps to go. This is only his second full-time season and has been in the running for a win over 10 times already, just seeing it fall out of reach like at Martinsville.
Chase Elliott is one of those drivers where he has a lot of fans who love him. Elliott has the kind of star power that can make him a mainstream star and that is very valuable for NASCAR. All Chase Elliott needs is a win and that will happen at some point. And when it does, it will be one helluva celebration.