NASCAR: Chase Elliott carries tough lessons of Daytona, winning mentality to Atlanta – Charlotte Observer

The lessons come at second-year NASCAR driver Chase Elliott fast, every week.

As Elliott continues to discover, it can be often be a hard education. Take last week in the season-opening Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race.

Elliott, who had started on the pole and won a qualifying race days earlier, led the race with three laps remaining. He appeared to be in control, his first career victory firmly in his grasp.

Then Elliott’s No. 24 Chevy – which had led 39 laps – ran out of gas. An opportunistic Kurt Busch blew past Elliott and won. Elliott finished 14th.

And Elliott, still winless in 42 career starts as he prepares for Sunday’s Folds Of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, was again left trying to figure out why.

“There are two things to look at when you think about Daytona for us,” said Elliott, who starts 11th Sunday. “A: We had to play the cards we were dealt. I felt like we planned to the best of our ability. B: We ran out of gas. Yes, we were leading and it’s easy to say, ‘Ah it was ours to lose. In reality, there were still three laps to go, and three laps at Daytona is a long time.

That was a devastating way to end a good week, for sure.

NASCAR driver Chase Elliott, on the Daytona 500

“For us to sit back and think that we had it locked down is kind of foolish. We were faced with circumstances that we really couldn’t control and we played what we had the best we could. Some days that is all you can do.”

Then comes the kicker for Elliott, 21, one of a handful of next-generation drivers NASCAR is counting on to become the faces of the sport:

“That was a devastating way to end a good week, for sure,” he said.

Elliott has come close to winning before. But he saw other young drivers such as Kyle Larson and Chris Buescher win last season. That elusive first triumph could come at any time, possibly as early as Sunday at the track in suburban Atlanta that is also near his hometown of Dawsonville, Ga.

He had 10 top-fives during his rookie season of 2016, including second-place finishes at both Michigan races. He led late at Chicagoland Speedway in the first race of the postseason, but couldn’t finish the deal after a late restart when Martrin Truex Jr.’s pit crew outperformed Elliott’s.

Chase Elliott’s first victory could come at Atlanta Motor Speedway, near his hometown of Dawsonville, Ga.

“You learn through this stuff and you just try to think about what you could have done differently,” Elliott said. “At Chicago, we faced with a caution there at the end of the race, I don’t really know what we could have done about that and I really don’t know what you do about running out of gas with just a couple of laps to go either. In both of those cases, I felt like from a performance side I thought we did a good job and we were close, just not close enough.

“I don’t know that it really changes my complexion or outlook on how I view things. It’s definitely a disappointing finish to a good day.”

Elliott has plenty of resources from which to draw. He drives for Hendrick Motorsports – enough said – and crew chief Alan Gustafson has 20 career victories with drivers such as Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.

Then there’s his dad, NASCAR hall-of-famer Bill Elliott, who didn’t win until his eighth season on the Cup circuit (although it was his in his first full-time ride). Still, it took Bill Elliott 116 races before he won at Riverside, Calif., in the final race of the 1983 season.

42 Career starts without a victory for Chase Elliott

“Yeah, he has brought that up a couple of times,” Chase said. “It’s one of those things where it’s crazy. Obviously, that was back in the ’80’s and things were a lot different, but it kind of just goes to show you if it’s not your day, it’s not your day. As well as they ran, for him to not have a win until he did there at Riverside – it’s like I said, whenever it’s meant to be our day, it will be, and hopefully that day comes.”

Among those with the closest view of Chase Elliott is Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, who sees in Elliott an ability that probably was handed down through genetics.

“He just has such a good sense of the race and adjustments that he needs for the race,” Johnson said. “To watch him grow over the course of the weekend at Daytona and understand the draft and the strength that his car had – he started to do things in the draft that nobody else was even thinking about and trying and making passes work that way.

“It’s just an instinctive thing inside of him, that racing savvy that you can’t teach somebody. They are born with it or not. You can learn to be courageous, you can learn to go run one fast lap, you can teach yourself those things, but that in-race stuff you really are kind of born with that and he has that”

Johnson’s first victory came in 2002 in his 13th start. The first of his seven Cup championships four years later. He looks at Elliott’s situation from an admittedly first-world-problem perspective.

“I know from my own experience… granted I did win early, but I had a few championship opportunities slip away before we won one,” Johnson said. “I just kept telling myself, how many of these am I going to waste away? These opportunities don’t show up all the time. So, I’m pretty confident that has been through (Elliott’s) mind.

“But hopefully he is also telling himself – and I know that I’m telling him: ‘Man, I’m young, I’ve got a lot of racing left.’ He is really doing the right things. Sometimes you are just unlucky and eventually that luck will come around.”

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