Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 13 – Chase Elliott wins final Nationwide Series championship at record age

Leave a comment

MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

For No. 13, we focus on a very special young man who became the youngest champion in NASCAR history, as well as the final champion under the Nationwide Series banner, Chase Elliott….

Chase Elliott must have set some type of record for a start-up success story.

It wasn’t until late in 2013 that Elliott was given the opportunity to drive for a brand new NASCAR Nationwide Series team out of the JR Motorsports stable.

Everything was new, from the driver to the crew chief to the team members and even the sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, which had previously been a Sprint Cup fixture for Michael Waltrip Racing teams.

When Rick Hendrick joined co-team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a partner in the team, things started moving fast, faster and fastest.

And by the time the 2014 season ended, Elliott – son of incoming Class of 2015 NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott – had gone from unknown startup to Nationwide Series champ.

To say it was a tremendous season for the 18-year-old, who only graduated high school in May, is an understatement.

As I said in the story about Elliott winning the championship, “If he’s this good at 18, what will Chase Elliott be like 10 years from now?”

MORE: Chase Elliott becomes youngest NASCAR champion, captures final Nationwide Series crown

Elliott clinched the championship a week before the end of the season, doing so with a fifth-place finish in Nov. 8 race at Phoenix International Raceway.

In doing so, he became the youngest champion in NASCAR history on any of the three pro levels, Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks.

And in another historic first – or make that historic last – Elliott became the final champion of the Nationwide Series. The series will be rebranded for 2015 as the Xfinity Series

Elliott had nothing short of a phenomenal season in his rookie NNS campaign. In 33 starts, he earned three wins, 16 top-five and 26 top-10 showings. He led 390 laps and had an outstanding starting average per race of 8.3 and an equally outstanding finishing average per race of 8.0.

Given the way he dominated through much of 2014, it would not be a surprise to see Elliott become the first driver in NASCAR history to end one season with a final championship under the previous sponsor’s banner, and then win the first championship under the new sponsor’s banner.

Elliott is so good that many called for him to be promoted to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for 2015. But frankly, there’s no room at the Hendrick Motorsports inn, with it maxed out at its four-team limit.

Ditto for HMS satellite team, Stewart-Haas Racing, which also is at its four-team max.

Hendrick reportedly has a plan in place to bring Elliott to the Sprint Car ranks, perhaps as early as 2016. But if all his drivers and the SHR drivers remain in place, where would Elliott fit?

He might not have to go anywhere if JR Motorsports adds a Sprint Cup team specifically to give Elliott his chance. But with Hendrick a minority owner of JRM, that could be a stumbling block unless Hendrick divests himself of ownership or shifts it to someone else.

Bill Elliott, who won the Winston Cup championship in 1988, and his son – who wasn’t even born when his father was the Cup champ – now become the fifth father-son combination to have won NASCAR championships:

* Ned Jarrett won two Sprint Cup championships, while son Dale won one title.

* Lee Petty won three Cup titles, son Richard won a record-tying seven.

* David Pearson won three Cup crowns, son Larry two Nationwide Series titles.

* The late Dale Earnhardt won a record-tying seven Cup titles, son Dale Jr. won two NNS crowns.

And now the Elliott’s join the illustrious list.

Now, Chase Elliott will have to adapt to some changes for 2015. He’ll be racing for a new series championship, and with a new crew chief. Greg Ives, who led Elliott to the NNS title, has replaced Steve Letarte as crew chief for Earnhardt in the Sprint Cup Series.

Letarte has moved on to become a TV analyst for NASCAR on NBC.

NASCAR veteran Ernie Cope will be Elliott’s Xfinity Series crew chief in 2015.

The future looks so bright for the younger Elliott. So much so that when he does finally reach the Sprint Cup ranks, potentially in 2016, he could very well become the first – and perhaps only one ever – to be a Chase who wins the Chase (or two or three or more). It’s likely only a matter of time.

Hendrick probably summed up Elliott’s rise to the championship the best:

“A year ago, we were just trying to figure out what to do,” Hendrick said after Saturday’s race. “… Man, what a young man. What a racer he is. It’s just really neat to be a part of history.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

An IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Talladega? Drivers have discussed it

David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Leave a comment

If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is interested in an IndyCar iRacing event on an oval, he might like the latest idea being kicked around by NTT Series drivers.

“I personally would want to run at Talladega, but I don’t think that’s an option,” Arrow McLaren SP driver rookie Oliver Askew told NBCSports.com in a Friday interview about his simulation work for the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “IndyCar drivers have a group chat with iRacing, and someone had the idea of running at Talladega, and I thought it was brilliant.”

It actually would be a throwback of sorts as a USAC-sanctioned race with Indy cars at Talladega nearly happened 40 years ago.

The IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be running its second consecutive road course Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or streaming here).

Of the four remaining races in the six-race series, there’s a chance that three of them could be ovals: A Drivers’ Choice track April 11; a “Random Draw” April 18 and a non-IndyCar “Dream” track May 2 (the April 25 race will be at Circuit of the Americas).

ENTRY LIST: Who will be racing at Barber

SPOTTER GUIDE: All 29 of this weekend’s paint schemes

IndyCar drivers are voting on next week’s track, and the options include high-speed ovals such as Texas Motor Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

A multicar crash at Talladega last October. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Talladega apparently isn’t on the list for next week, but surely it could be considered for a future race if it meant having Earnhardt in the field. The 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver is a six-time winner at Talladega, and the NASCAR on NBC analyst’s family is synonymous with the 2.66-mile oval where his late seven-time champion father won a record 10 times.

“I hope he can make that happen,” Askew said of racing against Earnhardt. “I hope IndyCar can grant his wish on that.”

The addition of Earnhardt would fit well with an IndyCar iRacing Challenge that already features champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson) and Supercars (Scott McLaughlin).

Will Power would like to see more of that.

“I think that would be great if we can get big-name drivers from other series,” Power said. “Getting a couple guys from Europe would be cool.”