DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Chase Elliott wants to race cars. Fast cars that he can drive to a second NASCAR championship.
The rest of the stuff? The crowds, the commercials, the showcasing his every move on social media? That’s just never going to be part of the job that Elliott finds enjoyable.
“I like the private life, outside of racing, what I like to do, I like it private," Elliott told The Associated Press ahead of this Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. “I like the fact that no one knows what I like to do.”
The topic came up as part of a growing narrative around the second-generation racer voted NASCAR's most popular driver the last six years. Elliott is coming off a winless season marred by injury and a one-race suspension in the worst statistical year among his eight full Cup Series seasons driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
Does Elliott only race because it's all he has ever known? His father is Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, his uncle a pioneer engine builder and the entire Elliott family has accomplished everything from their home base in Dawsonville, Georgia, more than 200 miles away from most everyone else in NASCAR in and around Charlotte, North Carolina.
If Elliott could just stop racing and slide into a life of snowboarding in Colorado, does team owner Rick Hendrick think the 28-year-old would slip into obscurity?
“No, because I don't know what other stuff he does,” Hendrick told AP. “He's not a party guy. He's not a world traveler. I think he enjoys living in Dawsonville. Chase, he has not given up. In no way is he racing because he's Chase Elliott. He's racing because he knows he's a champion.”
Elliott would argue his public persona is the opposite of a driver who would rather be on the slopes than at the track. Elliott missed six races last year after breaking his leg in a snowboarding accident.
His mood, Elliott said, is reflective of whatever he did that day in the No. 9 Chevrolet and not his overall approach to his profession.
“I still enjoy racing very much. I enjoy the competition aspect of it more than anything, and I think for me, it's probably misunderstood, I guess, or it sounds like it is, but I just want to be good at it," Elliott said. “I want to be competitive. I want to feel like I'm holding up my end of the bargain and I just don't feel like I have done a very good job.
“Over the last number of months and throughout the course of last season — and no excuse at all — I want to be better and I want to do better. I would argue it's the exact opposite, that a lot of the times when you see my frustration, it is because I want I be better, not because I don't want to be there. So I'd be careful coming to those conclusions without knowing the full understanding.”
And since we're talking about understanding the entire picture, Elliott believes the No. 9 team's struggles last season were carried over from 2022, when he won five races but slumped his way into the championship finale and finished last in the four-driver title field.
Hendrick and Jeff Gordon, the vice chairman of the race team, believe Elliott's season was doomed in March when he broke his leg. Even one week out of NASCAR's newish race car can be a tremendous setback to a driver, Hendrick and Gordon believe.
Elliott missed six but is convinced otherwise.
“I certainly don't blame the injury. I don't think my knee had anything to do with our performance,” Elliott said. “It would be really easy for me to take that excuse but I just don't think it is valid. I think the things we struggled with last year were the things we were struggling with at the end of '22 and they rolled over into last season.”
Elliott is an annual expectant to make the 16-driver playoff field, and he's equally expected to make the championship four. Last year was the first time he had missed the playoffs, and the first time since 2019, the year before his 2020 Cup title, that he wasn't among the final four title contenders.
He heads into the Daytona 500 healing from offseason shoulder surgery. He thought his shoulder held up well two weeks ahead of Sunday's opener in the exhibition Clash, where he finished 22nd in the 23-car field with a steering issue.
At the Daytona 500, a race his father won in 1985 and 1987, Elliott was runner-up to Michael McDowell in 2021. He started from the pole in both 2016 and 2017, but not since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014 has a Hendrick driver won “The Great American Race.”
Elliott hasn't locked himself in on winning the Daytona 500. He's got a long way to go to overcome last season.
“The biggest thing is just getting competitive on a weekly basis,” Elliott said. “I want to win and want to put up big numbers like everyone does. But for me right now and our team, truthfully, the goal of mine is just being competitive on a weekly basis, just consistently be a contender. That's all I've ever been after because I am a believer if you are a consistent contender each week, and if you are someone who shows up and has opportunities to win each week, you will get your share and be a car and driver that doesn't surprise anyone with their results.”
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing