Sunday, June 24, 2018
Sports

NASCAR's new wave respects the past while charting its own course

Four stock-car drivers under the age of 25 gathered in a conference room in New York last week to bat around some of NASCAR's issues — among them, noticeably smaller crowds and television ratings, and alterations to races to sustain interest.

These topics had been smoothly handled by drivers like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for a good 15 years, but Gordon has retired, and Earnhardt, 42, announced last month that he planned to retire after this season. So who could be NASCAR's next frontman?

"I'd say he's right there, personally, to be honest with you," Ryan Blaney, 23, a driver for Wood Brothers, said as he pointed at an even younger driver seated 3 feet away — a driver who, like Earnhardt, is the son of a popular former champion.

That driver, William Clyde Elliott II, known as Chase, smiled politely. The two other drivers in the room, Kyle Larson, 24, and Erik Jones, 20, did not disagree with Blaney. And Elliott, 21, did not back away from Blaney's claim, either.

Though still without a victory in NASCAR's top series entering Sunday's Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Elliott is a teammate of Earnhardt's at Hendrick Motorsports and replaced no less illustrious a driver than Gordon, the four-time series champion, in the No. 24 car last year.

"He's handled it great," Larson said of Elliott.

Bill Elliott, his folksy and genial father, was known as Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. He won 44 races and a series championship in an 828-race career from 1976 to 2012. He also won NASCAR's Most Popular Driver Award a record 16 times, two more than Earnhardt.

"Chase is his own guy," said Blaney, whose father, Dale, was also a driver. "Junior made his own way, being his own person. Honestly, the following that he has at the racetrack and away from the racetrack, I feel that pretty soon, he'll be as recognized as much as Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been around NASCAR."

Elliott was asked how he felt about what Blaney had just said. He pondered the question, then said in a drawl that sounded like his father's: "I just want to be genuine. I don't want to force myself on anybody — I don't think anybody wants to force themselves on anybody. I don't necessarily care if a guy wants to pull for me or wants to pull for somebody else; I just want to be genuine."

He paused, then added: "If people want to pull for me, that's awesome. I can use all the support I can get, like everybody else. But don't pull for me because you don't like someone else, or you pulled for my dad."

Bill Elliott, 61, made his last two NASCAR starts five years ago, finishing 37th in races at Talladega and Daytona. His last season as a full-time driver was in 2003, and Elliott acknowledged that his son is participating in a sport that is different from what it was when he drove.

But not everything has changed. In a telephone interview, Bill Elliott said of his son's replacing Earnhardt Jr. as an ambassador: "I think what you do is to let things fall where they may. In life, you can't fabricate things."

Bill Elliott said he has been impressed that his son seems to appreciate his family's history in the sport. Bill's father, Erving, known as George, owned a speed shop in Georgia where Bill and his two brothers worked. George Elliott owned Bill's first stock car.

Bill Elliott said of his son, "He's not only impressed me, but it's important to know these things — you have to understand what sacrifices were made for us."

Chase Elliott has also learned from Earnhardt Jr, son of the seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt Sr.

"I've been really lucky to come from his racing and see some of the things he did and have some of the same opportunities, for sure," Elliott said. "He came from not a lot growing up; they did things the hard way, did things on their own. They didn't ask for any help, they didn't want anybody's help, and luckily, they had success with it.

"I think that's why people had respect for him. It was just your hometown guys working on race cars every day of the week, and they were competing with the big guys. That's what was so relatable."

The drivers with Elliott last week — promoted by NASCAR as the "Young Guns" — said they were aware that the series has encountered challenges. Winning helps build fan bases, and the young drivers are asserting themselves in the standings this season. Larson, who is in his fourth full season on the top series with Chip Ganassi Racing, is first in the standings after nine races, with Elliott third, Blaney 12th and Jones 16th.

Bill Elliott said he was confident that NASCAR would reclaim some of the fans who apparently have lost interest. He said he hopes that an infusion of young talent would help. He has been a driver, so he can help his son find his way.

But he also said, "There's no road map."

Chase Elliott seems to grasp that already.

"We're all working hard to try to put on good shows," he said. "That's all you can ask for. I can't make you like something. You can't make me like something. At the end of the day, if somebody wants to go enjoy watching a race or a basketball game, they're going to do it because they like it. You've got to find that genuine connection."

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