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NASCAR

Younger Elliott has a future to believe in

  • NASCAR Nationwide driver Chase Elliott looks over his ride after practice rounds at NHMS on Friday, July 11, 2014.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

    NASCAR Nationwide driver Chase Elliott looks over his ride after practice rounds at NHMS on Friday, July 11, 2014. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

  • Chase Elliott's #9 Napa Chevrolet heads out of turn 4 and on to the front straight at NH Motor Speedway during Friday's practice for the Sta-Green 200 to be run on Saturday.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

    Chase Elliott's #9 Napa Chevrolet heads out of turn 4 and on to the front straight at NH Motor Speedway during Friday's practice for the Sta-Green 200 to be run on Saturday. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

  • Chase Elliott's #9 Napa Chevrolet heads out of turn 4 and on to the front straight at NH Motor Speedway during Friday's practice for the Sta-Green 200 to be run on Saturday.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

    Chase Elliott's #9 Napa Chevrolet heads out of turn 4 and on to the front straight at NH Motor Speedway during Friday's practice for the Sta-Green 200 to be run on Saturday. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

  • Chase Elliott's #9 Napa Chevrolet heads out of turn 4 and on to the front straight at NH Motor Speedway during Friday's practice for the Sta-Green 200 to be run on Saturday.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

    Chase Elliott's #9 Napa Chevrolet heads out of turn 4 and on to the front straight at NH Motor Speedway during Friday's practice for the Sta-Green 200 to be run on Saturday. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

  • NASCAR Nationwide driver Chase Elliott looks over his ride after practice rounds at NHMS on Friday, July 11, 2014.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
  • Chase Elliott's #9 Napa Chevrolet heads out of turn 4 and on to the front straight at NH Motor Speedway during Friday's practice for the Sta-Green 200 to be run on Saturday.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
  • Chase Elliott's #9 Napa Chevrolet heads out of turn 4 and on to the front straight at NH Motor Speedway during Friday's practice for the Sta-Green 200 to be run on Saturday.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
  • Chase Elliott's #9 Napa Chevrolet heads out of turn 4 and on to the front straight at NH Motor Speedway during Friday's practice for the Sta-Green 200 to be run on Saturday.  (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)

The words leaked from his lips with little notice, likely because they were exactly what someone in his racing boots would be expected to say. Chase Elliott, after all, was 18 years old, never having raced a full season in a NASCAR national tour, making the sixth Nationwide Series start of his career, and yet there he was in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway back in early April, having passed Kevin Harvick and held off Kyle Busch to earn his visit.

“I can’t believe it,” he said.

The cliché fit the circumstances, certainly. Thing is, though, Elliott really could believe it.

He may have been so young that only one driver – Joey Logano – has ever been younger when winning a race at this level. He might’ve been almost three weeks shy of his sixth birthday when one of the drivers in pursuit, Harvick, won the first of his two series titles. And before that day he may have led all of two laps on NASCAR’s second-best circuit.

But with faith that his equipment would help overcome inexperience, the son of ever-popular ex-driver Bill Elliott says he trusted all along that his JR Motorsports team would put him in position to not only win, but to win quickly. And win enough to compete for a championship in his rookie season.

“I felt like as long as I did my job right we were capable of competing for wins and being in the hunt,” Elliott said via phone before joining the Nationwide tour in Loudon for today’s event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I was just really confident in the group of guys that I was paired with.

“There’s just a lot of knowledge there. I felt confident in that. The biggest thing was I just had to do my job the way it needed to be done.”

It probably would’ve been unfair of them to expect that Elliott would seize the opportunity so quickly, considering he ran only nine of 22 Camping World Truck Series races in 2013, and spent the two years prior to that running K&N Pro Series East (finishing 10th, 11th, and fifth in three races at Loudon). But before he’d even accrued any of that experience – before he was even street-legal, in fact – he’d already convinced one of the more influential people in the industry that he could be up to the challenges of doing the job.

Rick Hendrick, owner of the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports stable, saw the potential in the late-model dominance of a then-15-year-old and signed Elliott to a driver development deal in 2011. That partnership ultimately steering him to the seat he’ll sit in today, at the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet powered by JR Motorsports, the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-owned outfit that merged with HMS back in 2008.

“If you look back at the history of NASCAR, I don’t think anybody would’ve thought an Elliott and an Earnhardt would be on the same team, so it’s kind of crazy,” Elliott said – though the relationship has certainly proven to be beneficial for him, particularly given the apparent quality of the equipment he’s given to ride, and the regard he has for his teammates.

Starting with crew chief Greg Ives, who was the race engineer for Jimmie Johnson’s team during its run of five straight Sprint Cup titles, Elliott raves about those he works with and called it “an honor” to be able to join JRM when he did. “There’s a lot of smart folks that want to make sure that place succeeds,” he said, noting that the third-place points rank he hauled up to New Hampshire was “just a testament to the people who work there, honestly and truly.”

But when you’re 18, when you’ve already had success, when you’ve caught the attention of one of the sport’s most powerful men, and when your dad is going into the NASCAR Hall of Fame next year, it’s only natural that you begin to think beyond the present. Beyond Saturdays. Beyond the Nationwide Series.

And Elliott admits he’s gotten himself caught up in that instinct from time to time. He’s found himself thinking about where he wants to be at a certain age, what he’d like to accomplish by a certain point, where he’d like to go next.

“I’ve caught myself being too worried about it,” he said, but he’s come to realize there’s no need for that. He’s realized that those decisions are out of his control, and instead he figures that things will come together if he wins races, runs well and continues to prove himself. So for now, he’s leaving the speculation on his future to others.

There’s plenty of that being done, too, with some looking at Hendrick’s fully stocked four-car team and wondering if Elliott might be in line to replace Jeff Gordon if and when the four-time champ eventually retires. The up-and-comer says he isn’t concerning himself with that yet, but he did seem to give an indication of his preference as far as where he winds up.

“Mr. Hendrick, I really owe everything to him,” Elliott said. “He’s pretty much made all this happen, and given me the opportunity to race for the past few years. I hope to have a long-lasting relationship with him and his team and whatever he feels like is the right step at the right time for me, I’ll be supportive of it. Until then, just try to make the most of what we have going on now.”

And that means winning – races now, and maybe a championship come November, with just 15 points separating him from frontrunner Regan Smith. He’s got more top-five finishes (seven) than any other contender for the title, and he’s the only driver among that group to have won twice this season – backing up the win he scored in his sixth start with another in his seventh, and validating his arrival among the series elite.

“I think we have just as good a shot as anybody to get the job done,” Elliott said of his championship chances, “and I’m confident we can do so if we all step up to the occasion.”

You can bet he believes that.

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