Is this the start of something special?
It’s the one question you come back to when you think about how Chase Elliott came away with the 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship. The 18-year-old son of former Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott won three times, then pulled away from JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith in the second half of the year before clinching the title with one race to go.
Time will tell if he will achieve superstar status in the top-level Cup Series one day. But in Elliott’s case, it certainly feels like it’s going to happen. With the guidance of his father and the resources of Hendrick Motorsports (whose owner, Rick Hendrick, co-owns JR Motorsports with Dale Earnhardt Jr.) behind him, the potential is enormous.
We saw some of that in 2014. After claiming his first series win at Texas in April, he followed that one week later with a jaw-dropping run from sixth to first in the final two laps to win at Darlington, perhaps the toughest track in all of NASCAR.
A third victory at Chicagoland later on in July put him atop the NNS standings. From there, a superb run of consistency all the way to the penultimate race in Phoenix (eight Top-5s, 13 Top-10s in that 14-race stretch) enabled him to stay there. The run finally snapped with a 17th-place finish in the season-finale at Homestead, but with the championship already in the bag, it hardly mattered.
With this much success at this young an age, it wouldn’t have been unexpected to have seen Elliott develop an air of cockiness about him. But instead, we saw a down-to-earth and noticeably self-critical figure as he methodically marched to the title.
From his perspective, that wasn’t so much being humble as it was being honest about how a career can ebb and flow.
“I know things can go south a heck of a lot faster than they can go good for you, and just because you had a good run on Tuesday, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be any good on Wednesday,” he explained at Homestead. “You’re happy right now, you might be mad in an hour.
“So everything can change and go the other way so fast…I’m sure things are not going to get any easier in the sport. Things are always changing, and you have to be — you just have to, I guess, kind of learn to deal with the ups and downs, and I just try to be honest with it is kind of the way I go about it.”
If we’re being honest, Elliott effectively locked up the championship at Kansas in October with a 10th-place finish while his closest pursuer, Smith, suffered mechanical woes and finished 22nd. The points gap between Elliott and Smith ballooned to 38, and Smith was left to hang on to second.
But Smith still had a tremendous season that saw him rack up 26 Top-10 finishes (tied with Elliott for a series-high total) and take a win in the season-opening race at Daytona. Winning at Daytona is special for any stock car driver, but after being involved in a bad crash that took place at the end of the 2013 opener (whose debris ended up injuring more than two dozen fans), it certainly meant even more for the former Sprint Cup pilot.
There were other great moments as well. Among the veterans: Brendan Gaughan scored his first career Nationwide win at Road America and then followed that up with a late rally and triumph later in the year at Kentucky. Elliott Sadler got his first NNS victory in almost two years at Talladega. And future Richard Petty Motorsports Sprint Cup driver Sam Hornish Jr. made the most of his part-time opportunity in the series with Joe Gibbs Racing, which included a win at Iowa.
The young bucks also had their days. Ryan Blaney stepped up again for Team Penske at Bristol, while Ty Dillon notched his inaugural NNS win on the biggest stage in the sport: Indianapolis. And let’s not forget about Chris Buescher’s own breakthrough at Mid-Ohio for Roush Fenway Racing.
But make no mistake: Cup stars continued to have a deep impact on the series.
Kyle Busch was a “Monster” once again in NNS competition with seven wins, but Brad Keselowski’s five wins (along with Blaney’s Bristol win) helped power the No. 22 Team Penske Ford to another owner’s championship. Eventual 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick chipped in four wins for JR Motorsports, and Kasey Kahne also won for that team in the Daytona summer race. Cup rookie phenom Kyle Larson was successful too, with a pair of wins in the early season.