Chase Elliott back at his home track, Atlanta Motor Speedway, during an appearance earlier this month. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
The Daytona 500, so says anyone who doesn’t win it, is a restrictor-plate aberration. A freak show of going full throttle all afternoon, nose-to-tail, three-wide, last man in one piece wins.
The story of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season is more accurately foretold the following week, under conditions that reflect 88 percent of the long schedule. Atlanta Motor Speedway and Sunday’s Folds of Honor/QuikTrip 500 happen to fall into that tell-tale slot currently.
Bill Elliott, who gave rise to a racing tradition in Dawsonville and to much-touted Sprint Cup rookie Chase Elliott, emphasized that during a recent visit to the big track in Hampton.
“I think really the racing starts when we come to Atlanta. That sets more of the stage what to expect week in and week out. You come here and start the season. Daytona is such an unknown,” Awesome Bill from Dawsonville said.
Precocious Chase from that North Georgia Place certainly hopes he can take a mulligan and start over this weekend. Daytona turned into a bad memory for the young Elliott, who he went from pole-sitter to 37th-place finisher after losing control of his car early in the race and ending up crumpled on the infield grass.
All the Sprint Cup rookie class of 2016 — of which Elliott is the most noted — is eager to launch into the “real” part of the season. Last year’s Xfinity champion Chris Buescher got caught up in a wreck about halfway through the 500, taking the hardest lick of his racing life, he said, and finished 39th. The other two rookies of note, Brian Scott (24th) and Ryan Blaney (19th), were solid, unspectacular and appropriately deferential to their elders at Daytona.
There are at least four turns and one learning curve that these youngsters must negotiate each week.
This class of rookies has been declared the most esteemed crop in a decade, which now looks like particularly high praise. For two members of the 2006 class — Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. — just finished one-two at Daytona, separated by 1/100th of a second.
Chase Elliott talks to fans before the start of the Daytona 500. Elliott started on the pole and finished 37th. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
“Very stout,” the 23-year-old Buescher said when asked last month to rate the competition for Rookie of the Year.
“It’s really cool because it’s guys I’ve been racing with since I was growing up and running through the sport. It’s tough no doubt, a very stacked field. The Rookie of the Year (award) is big because you only get to try that once,” he said.
With all the built-in advantages of his race team — Hendrick Motorsports — and the car he inherited — Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 — Elliott is the obvious favorite to make the most noise of all the freshmen.
Not that he’s going to get caught up in that competition within a competition. “I’m definitely not going to go into race weekends worrying about the other rookies, I can tell you that,” he said.
There being a constant evolution in the makeup of these cars, no surprise that the youngsters are arriving at a time of subtle change in design and style of racing. Atlanta will be the first race for a new aerodynamic package intended to take some of the downforce off the cars. The hoped-for result is trickier handling and more emphasis on driving skill over mechanical might.
Drivers in general seem to think the adjustment a step in the right direction. And the kids won’t complain.
“I’m actually glad that other drivers are going to be adjusting to a rules package, too,” Scott said. “It’s not like I’m going to be coming into something they’ve been driving for 10 years and have got figured out.”
On a macro level, they also are coming along at an advantageous time. Racing is going through a turnover of familiar names behind the wheel. Gordon retired last year. Tony Stewart, injured now, is retiring this year. NASCAR aches for new stars to be born.
“At no time in our existence have we had such talent in the lower levels waiting to emerge,” Brian France, NASCAR’s chairman and CEO, said.
“My whole group I came up with is in its late 30s, early 40s now,” Jimmie Johnson, the six-time Sprint Cup champion who turned 4-Oh in September. “There is a young crop coming in, a bunch of talented young guys coming up looking for their chance. I think our sport is in great hands.”
There could not be a better place than Atlanta Motor Speedway for one rookie in particular to shake off the Daytona disappointment and get his season pointed in the right direction. “Atlanta is 100 percent my home track, so I’m excited to get back and experience that,” Elliott said.
Some of his fondest memories in a car involve running in the Bandolero and Legends divisions as a child on the road course contained within the larger AMS layout.
“I definitely remember racing Legend cars on the Cup weekends,” he said. “You’re kind of the low man on the totem pole as far as the event schedule goes. They kind of fit you in when they can around the Cup schedule. Then going and watching your heroes race was always pretty cool.”
Now here he is, just 20 years old, a main man in the main event. They do everything fast in this sport, including growing up.
SPRING CUP ROOKIE CLASS OF 2016
Given name: William Clyde Elliott II
Born: Dawsonville, son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott
Sprint Cup car: No. 24, Hendrick Motorsports
Racing highlights: 2014 Xfinity Series champion; won all four stages of the Super Late Model “grand slam” from 2010-13.
Record at Atlanta Motor Speedway: Two Xfinity races, finishing fifth in 2014 and ’15.
Born: Prosper, Texas
Sprint Cup car: No. 34, Front Row Motorsports
Racing highlights: 2015 Xfinity series champion; 2014 ARCA series champion
Record at AMS: Three Xfinity races, three top-10 finishes (4th in 2015)
Born: Cortland, Ohio, son of former driver Dave Blaney
Sprint Cup car: No. 21, Wood Brothers Racing
Racing highlights: Second in Camping World Truck series and voted most popular driver (2014); made 16 Sprint Cup starts in 2015 but still qualifies as a rookie, his best finish a fourth at Talladega.
Record at AMS: One truck series race (11th in 2012)
Born: Boise, Idaho
Sprint Cup car: No. 44, Richard Petty Motorsports
Racing highlights: Has nine years of experience racing at lower series level – with a career-best fourth-place finish in Xfinity series points in 2014. Like Blaney, has made a number of Sprint Cup starts coming into this season (17), with a best finish of 12th at Kansas last year.
Record at AMS: Four truck starts (two top-10s) and six Xfinity starts (three top-10s).