CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Bill Elliott remembers taking his son to a kart race out west that Chase Elliott badly wanted to win. He was just a little boy and when he spun his kart, he couldn’t get it restarted and his shot at victory was gone.
“He was devastated,” Elliott recalled with a laugh. “It’s just his DNA.”
A dozen or so years later, Chase Elliott is still very hard on himself.
The latest disappointment came last week at Dover when his first Cup Series victory was right in front of him. But with just over a lap remaining, Kyle Busch chased him down and denied Elliott his long overdue first trip to victory lane. He’d been close to a Cup win before, but this defeat was by far the most painful for one of NASCAR’s emerging stars.
“That’s as close as I’ve been to finishing one off, and when you go through defeats like that, I don’t think you’ll ever forget it,” Chase Elliott said. “There is no silver lining. It was nobody’s fault but my own, and I take full responsibility for it.
The hurt hung with Elliott for a day or two, but moving past the disappointment is paramount to his ability to learn how to win in a Cup car. His first chance at redemption comes Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the opening race in the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs. The field of 16 drivers has been cut to 12, and with unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway looming next week, Elliott wants to knock out a strong finish at Charlotte.
“I think you take that frustration (from Dover) and everything that came with giving that race away and apply it to the upcoming week,” Elliott said. “This is an important round.”
Elliott has leaned on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion, as well as his Hall of Fame father in dealing with the disappointments that come from racing. It was Johnson who got to Elliott’s car first at Dover to give Elliott a chance to calm down before facing television cameras .
Johnson’s advice to Elliott was to learn from Dover, even though Johnson wasn’t sure how Elliott could have changed his strategy to hold off Busch. Elliott had taken command of the race by running a low line that he never adjusted, even though lapped traffic clogged the line and gave Busch the time to catch him.
“From where I was in third, I thought Chase made the right move protecting the bottom,” said Johnson, an 11-time Dover winner. “But there are many pieces to that mental game of winning, and one is just not handing them to somebody. Like nine out of 10 times, Chase ran the exact right line. But there is a way to learn how to win them and I feel like Chase has put in his time and he’s only going to be stronger for it.”
Just 21 and in his second season at NASCAR’s top level, Elliott is still trying to figure out how to best the stars of the sport. Each time he’s come up short — he has five runner-up finishes the last two years — he’s been extremely hard on himself. His father believes that is a family trait, but one Chase is working on overcoming.
“You’ve got to pick up the pieces and go on. Right now, it takes him a few days,” Bill Elliott said. “But he’s learning how to deal with it and go on. He’ll be fine.”
Kyle Larson can relate. He lost over and over again in his first 2 1/2 years in the Cup Series. Larson finally broke through last summer — beating Elliott at Michigan to grab his first career Cup victory — and Larson has added four more wins this season.
Larson is now considered a top title contender.
“There were a lot of times I seemed to choke late in races, but each of those losses I had, I learned something from each of them. I became more calm,” Larson said. “I feel like Chase has probably run second as many times as I did before his first win, and been close just as often as I was. But he’s pretty mature. It seems so far this year, he’s dealt with all the close finishes way better than he did last year. I think that’s a case of learning from each of those losses. But he’ll win, and when he wins one, he’s going to win a lot.”
Elliott has seven races remaining as the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet, the car he took over from Jeff Gordon. Because Gordon is the only driver to ever win in the No. 24, Elliott wants a victory in it before he moves to the No. 9 next season. The number change is part of a restructuring of the Hendrick lineup and puts Elliott in the No. 9, a car number associated with his father.
“I’m not in a position to get picky on where I get a win, anywhere will be perfectly fine with me,” Elliott said. “One thing that is a big priority is to finish the year off strong in that number. I’d love to add my name to that win column.”
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