Rick Hendrick mentioned he’d by no means encourage any of his crew’s drivers to race within the NASCAR offseason. But for now, he’ll permit it.
“The safety’s a lot better than it used to be, but you can get hurt in anything,” the Hendrick Motorsports crew proprietor mentioned forward of the 2021 NASCAR season.
It wasn’t with out some persuading that Hendrick agreed to permit 2020 Cup champion and the crew’s No. 9 driver Chase Elliott to run a packed racing schedule between final November and this February. Drivers, together with Elliott, have credited HMS government Jeff Gordon with serving to open Hendrick’s eyes to the advantages of extracurricular racing.
Gordon’s early profession within the Eighties was, in any case, crammed with dash vehicles, dust tracks and USAC occasions earlier than he grew to become a four-time Cup champion for Hendrick within the Nineteen Nineties and early 2000s. Gordon raced his first and solely Chili Bowl Nationals occasion in 1990, and watched his crew’s drivers enter this 12 months’s race, which was gained by new No. 5 Chevy driver Kyle Larson for his second consecutive CB Nationals title in January.
“I just think it’s that spirit,” Hendrick mentioned. “I would rather have a guy that wants to drive every day than a guy that doesn’t want to do anything but show up to run a race.”
Elliott maybe has all the time been that racing-hungry man, however this 12 months it lastly translated into on-track alternatives — regardless of the mannequin of the automobile or materials of the course. Since profitable the Cup Series championship in November, Elliott mentioned he’s had his busiest offseason but whereas racing inventory vehicles on the highest degree.
He entered the tremendous late mannequin Snowball Derby race (half-mile paved oval in Florida) in early December; a doubleheader occasion at Millbridge Speedway (1/6-mile dust oval in North Carolina) in late December; Chili Bowl Nationals (1/4 mile dust oval in Oklahoma) in mid January; the sports activities automobile endurance Rolex 24 at Daytona race (3.56-mile mixed street course in Florida) in late January; and the USAC Winter Dirt Games opener at Bubba Raceway (3/8-mile D-shaped dust monitor in Florida) just a few days earlier than NASCAR’s exhibition Busch Clash that kicked off the 2021 season.
When requested why he’s doing a lot racing now, particularly after he’s already achieved considered one of NASCAR’s highest honors as Cup champion, Elliott requested, “Why not?”
“I had some opportunities to go and do different things,” Elliott mentioned. “I’m 25. I’m trying to live life and drive racecars and be good at what I can be good at.”
Elliott mentioned he’s additionally attempting to face new challenges, get uncomfortable and in the end have enjoyable studying new racing disciplines.
“I’ve really just enjoyed my winter and enjoyed racing, and kinda — I don’t want to say re-found a passion or found it again, because I feel like it’s always been there — but just to go and seek out opportunities and have opportunities come to be able to go race.”
Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman of competitors Chad Knaus mentioned this has been probably the most aggressive he’s seen Elliott pursuing further racing alternatives.
“I’ve just had a lot of fun with it,” Elliott mentioned. “And I think that was something I’ve put a lot of emphasis on at the end of last year — is just enjoying those moments more.”
While his cause for diversifying his racing background is predicated in enjoyment, there’s additionally a sensible piece to Elliott getting further seat time, particularly earlier than a season wherein Cup follow and qualifying classes are restricted because of the pandemic.
“Every time you sit behind the wheel of a racecar, you’re going to learn something and get better at something,” Knaus mentioned. “Whether it’s something you can definitely hang a hat on is something that could be argued, but just the reps are valuable.”
Elliott has been crucial of his efficiency after sure occasions this winter. He known as his first Rolex 24 stint “terrible” and “way off pace,” however the expertise nonetheless proved precious. Elliott famous throughout NASCAR’s Daytona 500 rain delay final Sunday that he’d be able to race at any time of the night time due to his earlier shift at Daytona wherein he was driving between 2 and 4 a.m.
Elliott ended up ending second on the Daytona 500.
Not all of the credit score can go to his late-night racing expertise, however there are particular expertise he’s selecting up from his offseason ventures, significantly at dust tracks. There are areas he mentioned she’s nonetheless looking for to enhance that might make him an much more harmful competitor in a season that options extra street course races the place Elliott has dominated up to now.
“Understanding how to position your car, how to be around guys, how to move forward, how to restart and move forward and not just get taken advantage of is the area I need to get better,” Elliott mentioned of his dust racing efficiency.
In phrases of his street course prowess, Elliott mentioned he’s not letting previous wins make him really feel too snug this 12 months. Five of his 11 profession Cup wins have been on street programs. He was racing for the lead within the remaining seconds of the Clash on the Daytona street course earlier than hitting Ryan Blaney, and he’s the defending Daytona street course winner from final season. The Cup Series races there subsequent on Sunday. Elliott mentioned “that narrative can change very quickly” about his crew being dominant at street programs.
His crew chief, Alan Gustafson, famous other formidable street course racing teams and drivers this week, together with Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 19 Toyota crew.
“At the end of the day, I think you have to be good everywhere and I want to be good everywhere,” Elliott mentioned. “We as a team want to get to the point where we can win any given week — road course, circle track, intermediate, dirt, whatever it is — we want to be able to win any time, and I think that the great teams and the great drivers are able to do that and I think we’re very capable of doing that.
“So where my head’s at, is just trying to be good everywhere.”
Hendrick mentioned that in a “perfect world” his group’s drivers wouldn’t be racing something within the offseason.
“But it means so much to (Elliott),” Hendrick mentioned. “And I think any time they can drive — whatever it is — it helps ‘em.”