Chase Elliott, other young drivers infuse NASCAR with new blood


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Chase Elliott wears the name proudly yet independently.

He knows the deal. Son of Bill Elliott, Awesome Bill from Dawsonville and former Cup champ. Chase is quick to clarify that there is no catchy nickname for him.

He is his own man, even for a kid who has yet to graduate from high school, yet deemed responsible enough to legally drive a car at breath-taking speeds.

“I don’t care what your last name is, if you don’t get the job done you’re not going to be around very long,” Chase said.

That long journey he anticipates continues Saturday when Elliott joins the starting field for the Drive4COPD Nationwide race at Daytona International Speedway. He will be among eight rookies in the mix, setting up the next batch who will ride in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

There are eight rookies in that grid, too, including pole-sitter Austin Dillon and a few guys who raced their way in, among them Parker Kligerman, Cole Whitt and Alex Bowman.

They’ve got rookie stripes on their car, as per NASCAR protocol. But they’ve earned them.

Cue the classic rock tune from the Who: The Kids are Alright.

Businesses always are evolving, looking for the next best thing. NASCAR is no different. As stars such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. prepares to celebrate his 40th birthday in October and Jeff Gordon flips to 43 in August, newbloods need to rise up and keep things going.

“This is a good group of rookies who haven’t had to shave in the last few years,” said Kyle Petty, a FOX Sports NASCAR analyst.

Drivers can be as young as 15 to drive in NASCAR’s lower divisions but have to be at least 18 to drive in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.

Elliott, 18, and Dylan Kwasniewski, also 18, competed in last Saturday’s ARCA race in order to gain speedway clearance for the Nationwide race by proving they can handle fast speeds, high banks and scrambling around in traffic. Both finished on the lead lap in the 80-lap race.

They got this.

Check out who’s in the front Saturday.

Congratulations, Mr. Kwasniewski, your first Nationwide pole-sitter for the 2014 season. Kyle Larson, who is 21, will start second.

“It’s crazy. For lack of a better word, I have no idea how to say what the feeling is,” he said. “To be a rookie coming into this, to be my first race, to get the pole at Daytona International Speedway, it’s crazy.”

At least Kwasniewski doesn’t have to worry about the people getting stuck on his last name, beyond pronunciation reasons.

Elliott has a bit of a double-whammy in terms of high expectations. Beyond family ties, Chase’s car owner is Earnhardt, who knows a little something about driving under pressure, alluding to the ARCA race when Chase was blamed by some drivers for contributing to an accident.

“They expect more out of you,” Earnhardt said. “They expect you to know better than to do that because you are Bill Elliott’s son, or you are Dale Earnhardt’s son and you’ve been around this forever and you ought to know better.”

Not really.

And it’s not just the stuff that’s going on during the race.

Bowman showed up at NASCAR Media Day without his firesuit. He was lucky that it arrived in the afternoon UPS shipment, just in time for him to take his official NASCAR photos.

And then there’s Kwasniewski. He had a noticeable limp at a media opportunity Thursday.

Part of overly aggressive pickup basketball games in the motor-home area with some of the younger drivers.

“We’ve been playing pickup games throughout the week, and my (left) knee is not happy about that,” he said. “I’ve got to give it a rest. Definitely some bodychecks going on, some good playing. But it’s all in the fun of it.”

 

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