E.A. Sports Today

Next big thing

With Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s impending retirement, insiders look for Elliott, Larson to become new face of NASCAR

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA (Oct. 5) — Chase Elliott came to Talladega Superspeedway wearing a special pair of shoes to commemorate a very special event in NASCAR history, but it’s another pair of shoes the sport seems to be ticketing him to step into.

With Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s recent announcement to retire from racing at the end of this season, all eyes are turning to determine the next driver to carry NASCAR’s banner.

Elliott and Kyle Larson are considered by most the frontrunners for NASCAR’s next best thing, While Elliott has embraced his father’s approach of doing it his way he doesn’t necessarily feel the responsibility to bring the next generation along.

“I just feel responsible to do my job and try to go fast and try to give ourselves a chance to win races,” said Chase, who was 7 when Junior won his first most popular driver award. “I want fans to follow it, for sure, I’d love to have their support, but it’s their choice. If it’s genuine I think its great; that’s my only request. I want it to be genuine for whoever they want to pull for.”

It may be inescapable. Chase is following a legacy, just as Dale Jr. has with his father. Bill Elliott was NASCAR’s most popular driver for 16 years. Don’t think that distinction is lost on the son as the guard begins to change.

“(Earnhardt’s) won 14 now, right; I still think it’s pretty cool Dad had 16 – he’s not gonna beat that,” Chase said. “Dale’s been a great ambassador for our sport and I have a lot of respect for him in a lot of different ways.

“But whether you’re Dale racing cars, Tom Brady playing football, Labron (James) playing basketball, nobody can play or race forever, so at some point it’s going to change; it’s part of life. Luckily for the fans of our sport there’s a lot of young guys who have a lot of talent who are coming up who are not just racing in Cup right now but (are in the other series) and even a lot more guys who are racing in the short track world who unfortunately are probably never ever going to get a chance who deserve it way more than a lot of people here who could be here doing just as good a job if not better than anybody else.

“There are a lot of people to pull for there’s no reason why we cant find people to pull for as a fan moving forward because there are a lot of great people to choose from.”

When he thought about it, Chase said the secret to his dad’s success as a popular driver was his approach as just a regular guy, advice that would serve the next generation well.

“He had such a great connection to just your every day group around the Southeast,” Elliott said. “From what he came from, not having a whole lot, to how he and his family went about racing I think that was the connection people had with him and they did jump on board becuae they were just a bunch of guys from the hills of North Georgia who happened to show up and compete and ended up being really good at it. And they did it their own way. They didn’t ask for anybody else’s help, they did it their own deal.

“It’s definitely a different world. I’ve been very lucky to grow up in the house that I live in with my dad and his family and my mom and the racing history there. I’ll be the first one to tell you I’m very lucky and had great opportunities because of that. You still have to do the job that’s at hand behind the wheel to stay here and to be around.

“But from a fan’s perspective one thing he has always talked about is you may show up to events and you might have some folks who don’t care to be there and some folks who do care to be there, but if there’s just one person there that you can change their day and make their day worth coming for or getting up for, then … at the end of the day I think we’ve done our part. If you can change one persons day for the better I think it’s all worth it.”

Stepping into the shoes of greatness is perceived, the real shoes he had on at the track commemorated his dad’s NASCAR record qualifying speed – 212.809 – set at this race 30 years ago.

The shoes carry the color scheme of the elder Elliott’s red-and-gold Coors cars with a big “9” on one ankle, “World’s Fastest Race Car” on the other and the speed embossed on the instep.

“He still has a few of his Coors cars in the shop and I always think it’s pretty neat to look at them and see how they’re built, what they put into them and how simple everything was,” Chase said. “Like he said, they just didn’t know any better so they did it their own way, and did really good at it.”

Elliott has had his own success on superspeedways, but taking his dad’s record-setting car for a lap or two today, well, that’s a different story entirely.

“I don’t that I could handle it, but I would definitely try it,” he said. “I’d love to give it a shot but I don’t know if I’d have what it takes to hold it wide open. That’s not easy back then. I remember Dad telling me stories they basically kept leaning it (the spoiler) back until he couldn’t take it any more and that’s how they figured when to stop. They kept pushing the limit until he couldn’t drive it, which is pretty cool, really.”

This story will be updated.

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