The Chase is on

Chase Elliott has the talent, pedigree and looks to be NASCAR's next superstar. So what could stop him?

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On a breezy, overcast Florida day, a teenager stood among a crowd hiding a secret. Nearby was his blue-and-gold race car, massaged by obsessive crew members and decorated by a company lured back to NASCAR because of a car salesman’s pitch that this was no lemon and the kid was no typical 18-year-old.

The teen’s pedigree and past success made it easy to boast. Now it was time to deliver.

Friends and family stood nearby on pit road at Daytona International Speedway in February 2014. Few, if any, were aware that this kid felt anything but confidence. Nerves took over. A question crept into his mind.

            “What am I getting myself into?’’

He admits he still asks himself that sometimes. It’s understandable given the ride his young career has taken him on, as Chase Elliott made his Xfinity Series debut just 13 months ago.

Bill Elliott’s son seeks to qualify Friday for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race. He’ll do so for Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville Speedway, a track that can be as narrow as a New York City side street and have as much traffic. At the same place Richard Petty won a record 15 times, a footnote to history could be made. Years from now, this is where they might say it all began.

The son of a Hall of Famer and heir to one of the sport’s most famous rides, Chase Elliott is on the cusp of leading the sport into the future. With a country crooner’s deep voice and Georgia drawl set against dark eyes and acne-free complexion, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t turn 20 until after this season.

In the car, he’s deft, deliberate and determined, winning three races and the Xfinity title last season and anointed to drive Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 car next year. Chase’s greatest challenge, though, might not come from Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick or Tony Stewart, but how he handles the attention as the new face of the sport amid an emerging crop of racers.

* * *

Darlington Raceway was built when the American flag had 48 stars, John Wayne towered in movie theaters and more than one-third of the country lived in rural areas. As Harold Brasington constructed his track from South Carolina peanut and cotton fields, neighbor Sherman Ramsey made it clear that his minnow pond was not to be disturbed. Brasington complied, narrowing one end of the track, turning what was to have been an oval into an egg-shaped speedway.

Darlington Raceway remains one of the sport’s most revered places — a Wrigley Field or Fenway Park of NASCAR. Winning at the track “Too Tough to Tame” provides a reward money can’t match — the satisfaction of conquering a speedway whose Victory Lane is as exclusive as the hottest nightclubs.

The track also can be moody. Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough scored five Darlington victories but flew out of the track in 1965, his car resting on its side at the bottom of a hill. Petty, a three-time Darlington winner, tumbled down the frontstretch in 1970, his left arm flopping outside the driver’s side window in a savage crash that led to the advent of window nets.

Such history greeted Chase Elliott when he arrived last season — 29 years after his father won the Southern 500 and collected a $1 million bonus — to race there for the first time. Years ago, the meeting for rookie drivers featured a highlight reel of mistakes and crashes previous newcomers made. A rookie’s goal was to avoid making the following year’s reel. Winning was not much of a thought.

It was to Chase. He ran second in the final laps of last year’s Xfinity race there when the caution waved. The leaders pitted. A slow stop dropped Chase to sixth heading into the two-lap shootout.

Car owner Rick Hendrick watched his young driver to see how he’d react. Hendrick vowed nearly a decade earlier not to do another driver development program after watching fuzzy-faced drivers wreck so many of his cars. Then he saw Chase drive. Hendrick saw unlimited potential. He signed Chase, then 15, to a contract in 2011.

Chase needed only six starts to win his first Xfinity race, taking the checkered flag last April at Texas Motor Speedway. A week later, he was in position to win back-to-back races. Then came that bad pit stop.

Hendrick, listening to Chase’s radio channel, heard the youngster calmly tell his team he’d take care of matters. Bill Elliott admires his son’s coolness in the car and admits he didn’t always have that demeanor when he drove.

For Chase, it came naturally.

Humpy Wheeler, a former Charlotte Motor Speedway president who has been a part of motorsports for more than half a century, marveled at Chase’s talent racing Bandolero and Legends cars as a youth. While those cars didn’t handle well and competitors were erratic, Wheeler admired how smooth, consistent and unflappable Chase was.

Those traits stayed with the youngster as he grew. Former champion crew chief Ray Evernham recalled when he and Bill Elliott drove dirt late model cars at a Georgia dirt track during a private test. At the end of the day, Elliott put Chase, who was about 12 years old, in his dirt late model to run some laps. Chase topped Evernham’s best lap and soon exceeded his father’s best time. Elliott told Evernham that the kid did that everywhere they ran.

While he’s fast, he isn’t reckless. He was listed as being involved in a caution just three times in 33 Xfinity races last season, although Chase says: “I’m involved in way more than I like to be.’’

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Talent scout David Smith, founder and editor-in-chief of Motorsports Analytics, ranks Chase as the No. 1 Sprint Cup prospect. Smith lauds Chase as a “high-IQ driver’’ but also notes the smooth, aggressive driving style that allowed Chase to gain positions and go on to finish in the top five in nearly half of his Xfinity starts last year. That’s a performance akin to six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Like Johnson, Chase looks for ways to improve. He laments his 12th-place finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year when his teammate, Kevin Harvick, contended for the win.

“I didn’t take the right approach,’’ Chase says of that Indy weekend. “The way I went about practice to make our car drive a certain way wasn’t the way we needed to be in the race. I kind of led us down the wrong path.’’

Everything was going right at Darlington until that final pit stop. Two laps remained. Chase trailed Kyle Larson, Elliott Sadler, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick on the restart. Sadler and Larson were on the front row but gambled with only two tires on the final pit stop. The other four drivers each had four fresh tires. Starting on the outside of row three, Elliott was in the preferred line. Both Busch and Harvick were saddled on the inside line and needed to force their way to the top groove to have a chance to win.

Chase knew he needed a strong restart. He cleared Harvick for fifth in Turn 1. He moved past Busch on the outside for fourth along the backstretch. He passed Larson for third in Turn 3.

Chase shot by Kenseth for second before beginning the final lap. When the back end of Sadler’s car wiggled off Turn 2, Chase pounced, taking the lead down the backstretch to win in his first start at Darlington and become the track’s youngest winner at age 18.

At the track that gave Chase’s father the nickname “Million Dollar Bill” for that 1985 Southern 500 win, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bestowed a moniker upon Chase that night.

“I like to call him,’’ Earnhardt said, “the new Elvis.’’

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NAPA was on its way out of NASCAR in 2013. It had terminated its three-year contract with Michael Waltrip Racing two years early after NASCAR penalized the team for attempting to manipulate the Richmond fall race with a suspicious late-race caution and then having two of its drivers pit in the final laps to lose positions to help teammate Martin Truex, sponsored by NAPA, earn a wildcard spot in the Chase.

Rick Hendrick, whose automotive group is one of the country’s largest with 94 auto dealerships, pitched NAPA executives with the fervor of a car salesman about remaining in the sport and sponsoring Chase Elliott.

“Mr. Hendrick is sitting there pretty much guaranteeing the performance that Chase is capable of doing,’’ said Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JR Motorsports, who also was in the meeting with Chase and his parents. “We sold him hard that we could win and do well with him. We didn’t sell them the (notion of winning a) championship. We weren’t that crazy.’’

Still, it wasn’t enough.

“It took him being an Elliott to have that brand recognition,’’ she said. “They just weren’t going to sign up with … somebody else. Just with everything they had been through they had turned a lot of people off internally that they had to turn back on.’’

Sponsoring Chase Elliott also meant getting Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who have combined to be NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 28 of the last 31 years. NAPA, which declined an interview request, had Elliott and Earnhardt appear alongside Chase in a TV commercial last year. NAPA’s latest commercial features Chase and Earnhardt.

Chase’s growing popularity is aided by his connections to some of the sport’s biggest names. As Elliott’s son, he’s likely to attract fans who once favored his dad. Racing for Earnhardt’s team allows him to reach many of Junior Nation. Taking over Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 car next year, will help tap into Gordon’s fan base. Chase already has about 150,000 Twitter followers and a similar number of likes on his Facebook page.

“He clearly has the makings to be a rock star,’’ said Zak Brown, chief executive officer of Just Marketing International, a sports marketing company that specializes in motorsports with clients in Formula One, NASCAR and IndyCar.

Fanatics, Inc. (which sells NASCAR merchandise on NBCSports.com, NASCAR.com, its own site and at the track) reports that online sales of Chase’s merchandise are up 137 percent since the Daytona 500 compared to this time a year ago. Although Chase ranks just outside the top 10 in sales at Fanatics among NASCAR drivers, he is the highest-ranking full-time Xfinity driver.

Howard Hitchcock, president of Lionel Racing, says that the 1:24-scale Action Racing Collectables-branded die-cast of the car Chase will make his Cup debut with this weekend has the potential to be one of Lionel’s top-five selling cars this year. The last time a driver’s debut Sprint Cup car ranked in the top five in sales was 2012 when Danica Patrick’s car ranked third.

The company had about 5,000 of Elliott’s debut car produced. That trails only the 1:24 scale die-cast made of Earnhardt’s Nationwide Insurance car this year. About 7,800 of that car have been sold.

Chase has value in other ways. He gives younger fans someone they can cheer for. Eleven percent of NASCAR’s fan base is between the ages of 18 and 24, according to Scarborough Research last year. In 2011, that group represented 10 percent of the sport’s fan base. Scarborough Research also stated that 36 percent of NASCAR fans have children under the age of 18. Kelley Earnhardt Miller said she was struck by how many younger fans went to one of Chase’s appearances last month at a NAPA store near Daytona International Speedway.

“When you have somebody who is very marketable and an elite performer and young, he authentically reaches that younger demographic and they’re going to be pulled into watching him,’’ said Rod Moskowitz, principal and CEO of Fuel Sports Management, which represents Chase along with such drivers as Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin. “Naturally, (for) companies that are targeting not only the younger demographic but the NASCAR demographic, he’s an ideal fit.’’

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s much-ballyhooed Cup debut in 1999 came with its own slogan: “The Countdown to E-Day.” The 138-day buildup inflated by Budweiser’s promotional power only added to the anxiety Earnhardt felt leading into his bid to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600.

“That stuff right there put a lot of pressure on me,’’ said Earnhardt, who qualified eighth and finished 16th in his Cup debut. “That made me quite nervous, to be honest with you. Leading up to it I felt like I had this heavy obligation to deliver some kind of performance that I didn’t know whether I was capable of doing.’’

There is no catchphrase around Chase Elliott’s Cup debut this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. The short track also has a more casual atmosphere than Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“He’s a short-track guy, so he doesn’t have to feel a lot of pressure,’’ Earnhardt said. “I don’t think there are a ton of expectations coming from outside. I think that people expect him to just make the race, get in there and run laps. I don’t think he has to feel a lot of pressure on the performance side.’’

Expectations are high for Chase because some may view him as the leader of a new generation of racers. He doesn’t view things that way.

“The only responsibility I feel is that of myself and the job I have and not look at it much past that,’’ he said. “At the end of the day, you just have to sit back and realize that no matter what your last name is, who your granddad is, who is your dad is, uncle, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t get the job done, you’re not going to be around long.’’

Kevin Harvick talks with Elliott (Getty Images)

Chase isn’t the only young driver making his mark in the sport.

Last month, 24-year-old Joey Logano was the oldest winner among NASCAR’s top three series at Daytona. Xfinity winner Ryan Reed is 21 years old and Camping World Truck Series winner Tyler Reddick is 19 years old.

There are many others. Ryan Blaney (21 years old) is running a partial Sprint Cup schedule with the Wood Brothers. Kyle Larson (22) and Austin Dillon (24) are both in their second season in Cup. The Xfinity Series features points leader Ty Dillon (23 years old), Chris Buescher (22) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (21), among others.

With a number of Cup drivers age 40 or older, there will be a significant changing of the guard, beginning with Gordon’s departure after this season and Chase’s arrival.

That doesn’t mean that every young driver will excel immediately.

Logano went from can’t-miss talent to nearly out-of-work Sprint Cup driver within four seasons. After being touted for years — first by Mark Martin and later by Randy LaJoie, who said Logano was the best thing since sliced bread, earning the driver the nickname “Sliced Bread” — Logano struggled in his first season in the Cup at age 18.

“You think you’re the best thing out there and all of a sudden you get your ass kicked every week and it’s not so much fun,’’ Logano said. “You have to understand that you’re not that good, and then you’ve got to figure out how to be better.

“Learning more about racing and being a student of the sport were the biggest things that I went through, which was interesting because I never really had to work on being a better race car driver before I got here. It probably took a couple of years just to figure it all out.’’

Logano says Chase may not have as much of an adjustment period because he was around the series as a youth and can lean on his father for help and advice.

Kevin Harvick, thrust into a Cup ride at Richard Childress Racing a week after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, said Chase needs to have people help manage expectations.

“I used to fight, ‘Well, Dale did it this way, Dale did this for me,’ ‘’ Harvick said. “That will be a little bit of a struggle (for Chase). It will be ‘Jeff did this’ or ‘Jeff did that.’ I didn’t think I should have to be doing the same things because you weren’t the same people.’’

When Harvick made his Cup debut he was 25 — six years older than Chase is.

For all the hopes or expectations that Chase can help push NASCAR forward, he’s still a kid. It’s easy to forget that with the savvy marketing, as well as his polished look and beyond-his-years maturity.

There are signs, though, of his youth. Last year, the team removed candy from its hauler because of Chase’s sweet tooth. When Chase told Kelley Earnhardt Miller that he was going on a trip with friends in December, her immediate response was: “Is your mom going with you?’’

“No,’’ he told her. “Just me and my buddies.’’

She further quizzed him on his plans.

“I’m asking him all these questions,’’ Earnhardt Miller said, “because I’m thinking he’s just this kid.’’

One who could become a face of the sport.