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NASCAR rookie Elliott already racing to top

DAYTONA BEACH

Joey Logano and Chase Elliott were at lunch the other day when NASCAR's next big thing had a question. What's different, Elliott asked the reigning Daytona 500 champion, from when you stunk until now? Logano couldn't help but be impressed. "Shoot, you're already ahead of me," Logano said. "I thought I was awesome when I walked up here. And then I got beat up." Elliott doesn't have a choice but to be awesome. His dad is former NASCAR great Bill Elliott — Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. But that doesn't mean Elliott won't get beat up, too, as he starts his first full-time Sprint Cup season from the pole with today's Daytona 500. In fact, Elliott seems to be counting on it. Elliott isn't interested in glowing about becoming the youngest pole-sitter in race history, or the excitement that comes with inheriting Jeff Gordon's famed No. 24 Chevrolet. Instead, the 20-year-old Georgia native kept harping on how much he has to learn.

"I know our car's capable of winning," Elliott said. "I've just got to figure out what I need to do behind the wheel."

Figuring that out has never been much of a problem.

Elliott was only 17 when he made his NASCAR debut in the truck series; he finished sixth. He needed only four races to earn a pole, then got his first victory the next race, making him the youngest race winner in series history.

That was nothing compared to what Elliott accomplished the next year as a rookie in what was then called the Nationwide series. The 18-year-old tackled one of the sport's toughest tracks — Darlington — and charged from sixth to first in the final two laps to win back-to-back races and help him cruise to a championship in the second-tier series.

"That's the kind of stuff the heroes do," two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip said.

Waltrip isn't the only NASCAR veteran gushing about Elliott, though the youngster never finished in the top 15 in any of his five Cup races last year.

Logano — a former young hotshot himself — said he wouldn't be surprised if Elliott wins at least once this season. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne said Elliott "may do really, really well" as a rookie or might merely be "good."

The only driver intent on tempering expectations seems to be Elliott himself.

"There are going to be downs in this sport," Elliott said. "There are some ups that come along with it. You're trying to ride that roller coaster as best you can."

Competitors see Elliott's humility as something he learned from his father, who turned a family owned operation into a Hall of Fame career. Dale Earnhardt Jr. sees something else.

Earnhardt knows what Elliott is going through — following a well-respected, popular father into a sport known for its family ties. Earnhardt said the fame can be uncomfortable for a 20-something trying to make his own name with his own on-track success. When Elliott talks, Earnhardt hears a mature rookie intentionally trying to deflect praise to his crew and accept more blame than he deserves.

"I think Chase understates it because of who he is and having that last name," Earnhardt said. "Maybe he doesn't want as much attention just yet because he wants to be able to focus on his driving and doesn't want that pressure that goes with it."

But the pressure, like his last name, is unavoidable.

Elliott joins a Hendrick Motorsports team that has won 11 of the series' past 21 championships. He's replacing Gordon, a transcendent star who finished third in last year's championship race before retiring.

Elliott said he appreciates the opportunity, but his car's number — like his last name — only means so much.

"Once you get in it," Elliott said, "you can't see what number's on the outside."

All that matters, then, is what Elliott does on the inside.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

Daytona 500

Sprint Cup opener, 1 today, Daytona International Speedway

TV/radio: Ch. 13, 102.5-FM

Daytona darlings

A look at how other high-profile drivers fared at the Daytona 500 during their first full-time Cup seasons:

Austin Dillon (2014): Won pole, led one lap, finished ninth

Danica Patrick (2013): Won pole, led five laps, finished eighth

Joey Logano (2009): Started ninth, finished 43rd

Jimmie Johnson (2002): Won pole, finished 15th

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2000): Started eighth, finished 13th

Jeff Gordon (1993): Started third, led two laps, finished fifth

NASCAR rookie Elliott already racing to top 02/19/16 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2016 10:08pm]
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