Chase Elliott already was NASCAR’s popular driver. The 2020 season was the next, biggest step toward becoming the sport’s best driver.
Elliott finally broke through in a big way last year during NASCAR’s truncated season, becoming the third-youngest driver to win the Cup Series championship.
The pilot of the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro entered the Cup playoffs in the No. 5 spot. Upon reaching the Round of 8, it looked like a 20th-place finish at Texas might be the end of the road for Elliott. However, he won a must-win race at Martinsville to enter the Championship 4 before winning the final race of the season at Phoenix to capture the crown.
Now, it’s about firmly establishing himself among NASCAR’s top drivers. Winning a championship certainly goes a long way in cementing yourself among those current greats, but Elliott also knows there’s room for improvement in 2021 and beyond.
“I think for us, and the cool thing for me that I’ve thought about since then, there is still much more for us to go get,” he told reporters last week at Daytona 500 media days. “I don’t think we are at our best in every category, which is really cool for me and something that I think our team should take a lot of pride in. To have the kind of result we had last year but also know that we can still improve in some pretty big ways is exciting.”
That sort of attitude — being excited to improve — certainly should help the efforts. It’s not like Elliott went wire to wire in 2020. His season started with a lackluster 17th-place finish at the Daytona 500, which he’ll look to improve on this Sunday. The COVID-19-prompted pause hit a few weeks later, and Elliott didn’t win his first race of the season until late May at Charlotte.
He mixed in wins at Bristol and the Daytona road course, but wrecks at Talladega and Dover contributed to the uneven performance.
Elliott fully expects to be back in the championship mix this season, and he knows the pressure is on him to perform. He saw up close the criticism Jimmie Johnson — a seven-time Cup winner — took for struggling late in his career, reinforcing to Elliott it’s a “What have you done for me lately?” business.
“The lesson that taught me is that no matter what you do, if you have a bad stretch or don’t do well, then they’re going to come after you about whatever you’ve done recently,” he said.
Elliott believes the key to his team demonstrating legitimate staying power is to round out performances. Of course, Elliott has wins at nine different tracks and has finished in the top five at every single stop on the Cup Series cirtcuit other than Indianapolis.
So, relative improvement.
“We have some bad tracks and places where I’m not great at and places we haven’t been great at as a team … whatever it may be, just bad results,” he said. “So yeah, we just want to clean that up. There is a really small group of guys that can win literally every week. Like, we all would leave the track and we wouldn’t not be a bit surprised that they won the race. I want our team to be a part of that conversation as well.”
A win Sunday at Daytona — his first at the famous track — would go a long way in putting the Elliott and the No. 9 team in that conversation from the start.