Chase Elliott will not be a one-and-done like Kyle Larson was when it comes to staying in the Nationwide Series.
So says Elliott’s boss, JR Motorsports team president and Sprint Cup star Dale Earnhardt Jr.
When asked if the 18-year-old Elliott, who just graduated from high school on Saturday, is on a fast track to jump to the Sprint Cup Series, or whether perhaps the development of the progeny of former NASCAR star Bill Elliott should be slowed down, Earnhardt demurred.
“I don’t think you do either one,” Earnhardt said in a Chevrolet media release. “I think you just set a plan from the start, and you stick with it.
“We have like a two-year plan I suppose, that he runs in the Nationwide Series and I think you just stick with the plan regardless of the success he is having. You have the commitments in line with sponsors and what have you, so I think it will suit him well to relax and not have to worry about that and just follow the plan that he has had in front of him from the start.”
Elliott, who already has two wins this season, finished fourth in Sunday’s Nationwide race at Iowa and continues to lead the NNS points: a two-point margin over Elliott Sadler and Regan Smith, who are tied for second place.
Larson, who is 21, spent just one full-time season in the NNS last season before making the jump this season to Sprint Cup. But Larson’s case is a bit different than Elliott’s in the sense team owner Chip Ganassi needed an immediate replacement for Juan Pablo Montoya, who returned to the IndyCar series after his seventh NASCAR season last year.
Elliott, on the other hand, can – and should – take his time developing,” Earnhardt said.
Plus, even though he is racing full-time for JR Motorsports, Elliott is considered a developmental driver for Hendrick Motorsports, which does not have any openings on its Cup roster heading into 2015.
“He is really young too, so he has a lot of time on his hands and time to get to Cup level to realize that potential one day,” Earnhardt said of Elliott. “But yes, I think he can just sit there and relax knowing what we tried to set out to do from the start and not really adjust.”
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”