James: Daytona 500 defines past and future for Elliott, Earnhardt

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — He dragged expectation to NASCAR’s highest level, the driver on the front row of the Daytona 500. Daddy raced, was a champion, ran a lot of laps around these high banks at Daytona International Speedway before finally winning the sport’s greatest race.

That son of the successful and wildly popular legend bore the benefit and the scrutiny of a notable last name as he toiled to make his own way. He showed promise by winning an under-series championship before taking that last step in his father’s footsteps, and out of his shadow.

That driver on the front row of the Daytona 500 is actually both of them — albeit separated by 21 years, a literal lifetime to one of them: pole-sitter Chase Elliott. By leading the procession to the green flag on Sunday, Elliott begins his second season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, where his father, Bill, won the 1988 championship and the Daytona 500 in 1985 and 1987.

To his right will be Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose father and namesake was a seven-time series champion and won the Daytona 500 in 1998. This is an Earnhardt who, at 42, believes he still has much to do and has plied the garage of a track where he’s won two Daytona 500s (2004 and 2014) with the spring of a rookie’s step all Speedweeks.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and girlfriend Amy Reimann attend the NASCAR Evening Series at Charlie Palmer Steak, part of the Champion’s Week events that mark the end of the season.
Champion’s Week in Las Vegas allows drivers to enjoy lighter moments and interact with fans. Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon did just that at After the Lap.
Earnhardt participates on stage in a version of the game “Are you Smarter then a Fifth Grader?”, part of Champion’s Week.
Earnhardt has exhibited a more mature, public side of his personality in 2012, from making difficult personnel moves at JR Motorsports to enjoying fancy restaurants.
Earnhardt spoke to students at Piper High School in Kansas City, Kan., one of five speaking engagements organized by sponsor National Guard this season. It’s also another sign of change for the introverted star. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have OK’d this last year. I’d be like, ‘Are you crazy? I ain’t talking to all them kids,’ ” he said.
After missing two Sprint Cup races to recover from two concussions in a six-week span, Earnhardt returned at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 28. He finished 21st.
Earnhardt announced Oct. 11 he would sit out the next two races while he recovered from his second concussion in a six-week span. He admitted he raced at less than peak mental acuity, hoping his reflexes would hold up against dangerous conditions while driving nearly 200 mph.
Earnhardt gave teammate Jimmie Johnson a ride after both crashed on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway.
Earnhardt suffered his second concussion in a six-week span when he was involved in a 25-car crash on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 7.
Shown here celebrating with then-crew chief Tony Eury Jr. in 2008, Earnhardt parted ways with his cousin professionally this year, reshaping JR Motorsports. Eury had served as Danica Patrick’s Nationwide crew chief since she joined the circuit in 2010.
Earnhardt made the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the fifth time this season. His best points finish since NASCAR went to the Chase format in 2004 is fifth — in 2004 and 2006.
Earnhardt has won one pole position this season — at Richmond International Raceway, the final Cup race before the Chase. He finished 14th.
Redskins owner Dan Snyder walks with Earnhardt before a preseason game with the Buccaneers on Aug. 29. Earnhardt had crashed during a tire test session in Kansas the same day, suffering the first of two concussions.
Voted NASCAR’S most popular driver every year since 2003, Earnhardt enjoys an adoring fan base and always draws a roar from the crowd during driver introductions.
Earnhardt and Danica Patrick, who drives for his JR Motorsports team on the Nationwide circuit, can be seen together at the track and off. They appear in several ads together.
The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet took over the Sprint Cup points lead July 29 after finishing fourth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It marked the first time Earnhardt had led the points in nearly eight years.
Earnhardt snapped a 143-race winless streak on June 17, when he won at Michigan International Speedway.
Many people in the sport thought the breakthrough was the beginning of a second-half season resurgence. Earnhardt said he thought the win ‘would be all relief, but it wasn’t relief at all. It was all excitement.’
When Earnhardt finally broke his winless streak, defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart said “it’s not a national holiday.”
In addition to bringing a trophy to Hendrick Motorsports with his first win in four years, Earnhardt got to ring the ‘victory bell.’ “I’m going to ring that damn thing as hard as I can,” he said. “… I like seeing the smiles on everybody else’s face. It’s so awesome to see how many other people it affects. It feels good to be able to bring those guys what they deserve.”
Steve Letarte, left, became Earnhardt’s crew chief at the beginning of the 2011 season. When they won, Letarte said: “… We are not crazy. What we have been trying to do has been working.”
Earnhardt first stepped out with girlfriend Amy Reimann at the 2011 NASCAR awards ceremony. He also brought her to the White House in April — when President Obama honored Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart — and kissed her in victory lane at Michigan.
This year, Earnhardt opened Whisky River, a replica Western town on his 200-acre property, to the media. A commercial was shot there for the Sprint Cup all-star race.
For Earnhardt, 38, this season has been about personal growth. “I was just really nervous about what people’s perceptions would be, so I held a
lot of stuff in and just kept a lot of stuff private for a long time,” he said.

Few have the perspective on what Elliott is trying to accomplish like Earnhardt. And as Elliott, 21, prepares for his second Daytona 500 — and his second time starting on the pole — Earnhardt thinks his young Hendrick Motorsports teammate might have entered the series in a more pressurized environment than he did in 2000, partly because Elliott also had the scrutiny of replacing four-time series champion Jeff Gordon in the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet.

“He’s got a lot of pressure on him,” Earnhardt said Thursday night. “I couldn’t imagine … When I went into Cup racing, man, I had my father as my boss. I had a security blanket. I didn’t worry about any of that stuff. I never worried about my job. I was going to get plenty of rope to learn and get better. And he’s driving for Hendrick.


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“I couldn’t imagine going into Rick’s car as a rookie. Even though he’s got his dad supporting him and that to lean on, man, the pressure to drive that 24 car must be immense.”

Elliott may feel it, but he doesn’t show it publicly, perhaps except for his penchant for excess apology when a potential breakthrough run for a Cup win collapsed last season. And he’s not asked his teammate about how this all was for him.

“I can’t say we talked about some of those things in particular,” Elliott said, “but he has been a good teammate and a good one to lean on and especially at places … You can tell the places he feels really confident about because he’s more open and willing to talk and share. He’s willing to talk and share about anywhere, but he really likes to share about places he feels really, really good about. This being one of them.”
Chase Elliott’s racing career
Absolutely one of them. Earnhardt looks and acts nothing like a driver in the autumn phase of a career, likely because many things feel new and precious again after nearly having it all wrested away when he was forced to miss half of the 2016 season because of a concussion that plagued his vision and balance.

This could be some sort of torch-passing ceremony, if the elder pushes the latest next-great-NASCAR-hope to a first Daytona 500 victory. It would be an instant classic. Especially if the insidiousness of concussions steals what Earnhardt has worked so hard to recover. But Earnhardt certainly isn’t going to serve one up for Elliott if a third 500 win is within the means of the wizardry he conjures on restrictor-plate tracks.

This will more likely be two teammates with obviously potent Chevrolets taking the measure of each other on NASCAR’s grandest day. And that will be incredibly interesting to watch between the master and the pupil who has displayed an aptitude that has impressed Earnhardt. Elliott, Earnhardt said, is “already pretty damned bad-ass at this game.”

Scores of potential winners will have much to do in ruining this tale, former 500 winners Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano among them. Logano’s Team Penske comrade, Brad Keselowski, might have had the best car this Speedweeks.

So Elliott will need an ally. Maybe he’ll seek out Earnhardt once the undulating packs of cars begin churning around them; maybe, in the final laps, when decisions matter.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Elliott chuckled. “Obviously, he’s going to be really fast. He’s also going to be really hard to beat, so I don’t know if you want to help him or not, because you never know.”

That driver on the front row, he’ll work it out when the time comes.