Column By: ZACH ALBERT / NASCAR – PLACERVILLE, CA – Chase Elliott cruised in to dusty Placerville Speedway at 10:15 p.m. local time Thursday night — a crisp 1:15 a.m. back home on the East Coast.
“I was pushing it, made it,” Elliott said of his turnaround from the 5 p.m. conclusion of NASCAR Next Gen testing at Charlotte Motor Speedway earlier in the day to his 6:30 p.m. flight to Sacramento.
Fifteen minutes after walking through the Placerville pit gate, Elliott emerged from the Kyle Larson Racing hauler of his Cup Series teammate, having traded his fresh Atlanta Braves cap with a 2021 World Series logo for a firesuit and helmet. An ATV pushed his No. 9 USAC Midget racer to the track, with Larson trotting to a hillside vantage point at the track’s north turn to watch and take notes.
The dirt-track education of Elliott continued with a full two additional nights of racing at the quarter-mile oval in picturesque Northern California, with the 2020 Cup Series champion gaining experience and broadening his racing portfolio. He had the benefit of two well-credentialed teachers — Larson, his successor as Cup champ and a master of multiple dirt disciplines, and Brad Sweet, the World of Outlaws sprint car champion for three years running — helping him to navigate a track he’d never seen before last weekend.
“I felt like I was making gains from being around people who know this, it’s such a departure from anything I’ve ever done, but I really have enjoyed it,” Elliott said before Saturday’s main event. “For me, it’s really nothing more than just trying to better myself and get outside in an area that I’ve never been in before and do something different. I have always really respected the discipline and I’ve been a fan of it for a number of years.
“I just felt like I got to a point where I’m like man, if I don’t … I’m interested in it, I think it’s really cool, I respect the discipline. I think you can learn some really good habits during this stuff. And I was just like, man, if I like it, it’s not gonna get any easier as you get older. As you get older, I feel like learning new things is just going to be harder and harder and harder. So I just felt like if I was going to get involved, I needed to get in there and make an effort to do that.”
Elliott finished 20th in Saturday’s Hangtown 100 A-Main, getting into the feature with a provisional berth after coming up two places short of a transfer spot in the C-Main. Missing Thursday’s events left him with an uphill climb to qualify outright, but he never stopped trying to learn.
After each on-track stint, Elliott debriefed with Larson, Sweet and the crew, reviewing video footage of his heats and gathering more information about the track’s characteristics. Larson and Elliott regularly collaborate as teammates in Hendrick Motorsports’ team meetings, but this was something new for all parties to absorb.
“It’s really neat to see how and kind of get a glimpse of how his brain works and how he processes how to drive a race car,” Larson said. “I’m not a good coach, so it’s been nice to have Brad Sweet here. He’s really been helping Chase a lot. I pitch in some advice when I can, but like I said, my only advice is I feel like to anybody when they ask me what to do is to say, ‘run it harder.’ Explaining how to run it harder, Brad’s really good at doing that and talking angles and explaining what to do with your hands and feet.
“But no, Chase has really impressed me. For him to fly in, suit up, sit in the car, strap in after never seeing this track, didn’t probably watch the races because he was flying here … to go out there and be as smooth and consistent as he was, I thought was extremely impressive. He just needs more seat time and it’ll come. This is as opposite as it gets from what he’s used to doing, especially these track conditions, so I’ve been extremely impressed. I thought he’s probably a little hard on himself, but for him to just go way out of his comfort zone is something we should all take notice of and be impressed with.”
Sweet took notice, too, saying he drew some similarities between Elliott’s approach and his own. Sweet, who has asphalt experience on his own resume with 54 NASCAR national-series starts on a part-time basis from 2009-2013, says Elliott’s willingness to make that extra effort became evident as he gained pace through the weekend.
“I think what’s most impressive about Chase is how much he cares,” Sweet says. “He’s really out of his comfort zone, and that’s really respectable for a guy who basically has kind of a fan base and people expect him to be good, and sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable to come to a place where you know you’re not going to be as good as what you know you are. So it’s really cool that he came here, it helps put a lot of eyes on our sport, and he’s definitely trying really hard. He wants to know every piece of information, advice that anybody has for him and I think that’s pretty cool.
“I think that he thinks he’s worse than he is, but it’s just because he’s not as comfortable as he wants to be yet. So I think once he gets a little more comfortable, there’s no doubt he’s unbelievably talented. Once he gets some more laps, there’s just a lot of experience here — these guys do this night in and night out. So once he gains the experience I think it’ll be a lot more competitive and it’ll become even more fun for him.”
The Placerville crowd welcomed Elliott warmly, sticking around after the main event on Thursday’s opening night after word circulated that his tentative arrival was inching closer to reality. After suiting up and loading in, he slung his No. 9 racer into the turns, exploring Placerville’s grooves and prompting cheers from the hardy handfuls who stayed. “Nobody claps for hot laps,” one crew member said while watching from the Turn 3 embankment.
There might be more of a reception from the dirt-track crowd this offseason if Elliott has his way. He indicated Saturday that a return to the Chili Bowl Nationals is tentatively in the works, and a January appearance there would mark his second entry in the prestigious midget-car event.
“We’re working on it. If they don’t fire me, I’m supposed to do it,” Elliott said with a laugh. “They’ve offered it up and I told them I would love to do it. So, we’ll see. If they don’t fire me by next Saturday, I’m planning on going.”