MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Chase Elliott secured his first NASCAR Cup Series championship in November.
What did he do to celebrate? He went racing.
Well, that wasn’t the only thing the 25-year-old son of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville did, but it was certainly what drew the most attention.
Elliott, who began his career at a young age, hadn’t raced outside of NASCAR’s three national touring series in nearly five years. While Elliott won nearly every asphalt late model race there was to win during his ascension to the NASCAR Cup Series and a ride with Hendrick Motorsports, his appearances in the pits at short tracks virtually disappeared once he arrived in NASCAR’s senior circuit.
But that was not unusual for a Hendrick Motorsports driver. Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson did almost no “outside” racing during his Hendrick Motorsports career and Jeff Gordon, arguably one of the best short-track racers of all time, has never returned to the cockpit at the tracks that made him a household name during the late 1980s and early ’90s.
So what changed?
Well, first Elliott did what he’s paid to do. He dominated the final two NASCAR Cup Series races of the season to join his dad as the third father-and-son duo to have each won the Cup Series championship. He won five races along the way.
Ironically, or not, Elliott clinched the championship happened during the same time frame in which team owner Rick Hendrick signed Kyle Larson to drive the fourth Hendrick entry in the Cup Series next season.
Hendrick gave his blessing for Larson, who ended up winning 46 dirt-track races in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, to continue to run a limited schedule of short-track events when his Cup Series schedule permits.
Whether or not that paved the way for Elliott to return to his roots is unknown, though it is a cause for speculation.
Few were surprised when Elliott revealed he was going to return to the Snowball Derby, but his plans to compete in the 35th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals on Jan. 11-16 shocked many. At the time of the announcement, Elliott had never raced a midget and had limited dirt experience.
First, Elliott made his first Snowball Derby appearance since he won the Five Flags Speedway classic for the second time in 2015. Driving a car fielded by James Finch, Elliott had to race his way into the main event by winning the last-chance qualifier.
During the 300-lap feature, Elliott regained competitive form quickly and finished an impressive third.
Even before heading to Florida for the Snowball Derby, Elliott had a plan in place to make his Chili Bowl debut. With the support of sponsor DiaEdge, Elliott landed a ride with fellow NASCAR competitor Chase Briscoe and started connecting the dots.
First came a late November micro sprint race under an assumed name and then a test session aboard one of Briscoe’s midgets. That set the stage for Elliott to make his midget racing debut during an unsanctioned mid-December event at North Carolina’s Millbridge Speedway.
A sixth-mile dirt track, many believe the Millbridge oval is a good simulation of racing on the fifth-mile track at Tulsa (Okla.) Expo Raceway.
Elliott competed in a pair of features on Dec. 12 and finished third in one and fourth in the second with Briscoe and Larson claiming the victories. It was a respectable start and got the stock car champion’s feet wet prior to the biggest event in midget racing.
Elliott admitted to feeling “like a fish out of water” and said he was leaning on Briscoe and Larson for advice as he learned how he needed to drive a midget.
He said the lightweight, high-horsepower cars require a different type of driving style than he is accustomed.
“The aggression level you need (to be successful) is really high,” he explained. “You just have to go. There is no waiting around. I think that’s the biggest difference for me, is just that the intensity level is up from the get-go and not in just the last 100 miles or so of one of our normal (Cup Series) events. That’s really cool, though, honestly. If you have an opportunity, you have to take it.”
After the Chili Bowl, Elliott was scheduled to make his Rolex 24 At Daytona debut with Action Express Racing.
Elliott couldn’t think of a better way to spend his offseason than racing.
“I think it’s the best way to enjoy it, is to come out and race and experience new challenges,” he noted. “I feel like short-track racing is in a very healthy place and I think it’s a really cool thing to go to the Snowball Derby and see 15,000 people down there that love short-track racing and who got to see a great race. Obviously, the Chili Bowl is what it is and will be packed out too, just not as much as normal.
“I think this is the best way I can enjoy a great NASCAR season, is to come race more and I’d love to do more of this moving forward. I’m having a lot of fun.”
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