Is Chase Elliott NASCAR's next most popular driver?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired following the 2017 Monster NASCAR Cup Series season having won the series Most Popular Driver award 15 times, the longest streak by one driver. However, one driver won the award 16 times. The answer: Bill Elliott, the fa
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired following the 2017 Monster NASCAR Cup Series season having won the series Most Popular Driver award 15 times, the longest streak by one driver. However, one driver won the award 16 times. The answer: Bill Elliott, the fa
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NASCAR & Auto Racing

NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver is surprisingly enduring honor. Is Chase Elliott next?

February 17, 2018 07:12 PM

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.

Flags flying in the infield; hordes of hollering, excited teenage girls; a good ’ol family name.

Chase Elliott has it all, a human cocktail with the necessary ingredients to make him one of the future faces of racing.

To make him NASCAR’s next Most Popular Driver.

And if a poll of other drivers conducted at Daytona 500 media day is to be believed, Elliott is already well on his way.

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“I think he's already won the 2018 Most Popular Driver award,” Elliott’s teammate Jimmie Johnson said with a laugh.

To some extent, it makes sense. Elliott’s Hall of Famer father Bill held the title for 16 years officially, more than anyone else in NASCAR. . Then Dale Earnhardt Jr. came along and snatched the honor, and he’s held it ever since.

Now it’s time for Chase to take back the family legacy – even if that’s the last thing on his mind.

“It’s not really relevant to what I need to be focused on, right?” Elliott said Wednesday. “I’ve encouraged people to pull for whoever they find value in pulling for, whatever they find a connection with – whether that’s me or someone else, that’s their decision.”

That isn’t to say Elliott doesn’t care about fan support. It’s the lifeblood of such an expensive sport. But the sport has to come first. And that is relevant to what Chase needs to focus on.

That’s because, and to paraphrase the 22-year-old, he’s still 0-for-77 at the Cup Series level. Xfinity Series championship, sure. But in a little over two years at NASCAR’s top level, he’s still winless.

And so that’s what he’s most focused on now.

“Year one was the one I wanted to make it happen for myself (and win a race),” Chase said. “So was year two.”

NASCAR driver Chase Elliott has been around Daytona International Speedway his entire life with his father, Bill Elliott having been a Hall of Fame driver. Chase Elliott was able to point out two highlights of the track during Media Day on Wednesd

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Part of that frustration has to come from how close he’s been. Seven times he’s been the runner-up. Seven times he’s seen someone else take the checkered flag through his front windshield. That too runs in the family, though – Bill finished second eight times before he finally won his first race in 1983.

It took him 116 tries.

Being back at Daytona International Speedway this weekend also brings up one of Chase’s more aggravating results: the 2017 Daytona 500. Chase sat on the pole for that race, was in the lead on the last lap ... and then ran out of gas.

He finished 14th.

NASCAR driver Chase Elliott says that the week leading up to the 60th Daytona 500 is very busy, and that once the team leaves it can begin its season. This week is a race of its own.

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“The 500 was kind of the beginning of a lot of those frustrating moments, unfortunately,” Chase said. “The ones that frustrate me the most are the ones I feel I can do something to change the result. ... I can’t create gas. I don’t really know how to change that.”

There isn’t much Chase needs to change on the track, though. Consider how successful he’s been even without a win. He was Top 5 in a third of last season’s races. He almost made the championship final four without ever winning.

Same goes for off the track. His dad’s former fans have trickled down to him and the legacy of the No. 9 car he now drives, and his youth makes him marketable to younger generations.

All that’s left for Elliott to do now is win. He’s one of the favorites Sunday in this year’s Daytona 500. And if he can pull off what he almost accomplished last season, if he can finally notch one in the win column?

Well, you’re more likely to be hearing “Chase Elliott: NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver” for a long time in the future.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks