In the weeks that have followed since Chase Elliott was named to replace Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports, the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion has taken time to process what he calls a “pinch me moment.”
Over the last year, Elliott has been on a rocket ride to stardom. In January 2014, he signed to drive in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports. 11 months later, he was crowned Xfinity champ with one race left in the season.
And now, his Cup future is set – five races this year and then, a full-time ride with the famous No. 24 Chevrolet starting in 2016.
But as Elliott repeatedly said during Thursday’s Speedweeks media day at Daytona International Speedway, there’s a long way to go until then.
“As I’ve said in years past, I’ve caught myself looking too far ahead and not focusing on what’s going on now and really needing to step back and focus on a weekend at a time,” Elliott said. “That’s definitely what I want to do this year. I realize that it’s [replacing Gordon] a year away and I think everybody else needs to realize that, too.
“2016 is a year off. A year is a long time. There’s a lot of racing between now and next season. There are 33 Xfinity races and five Cup races this year. I’m just trying to make the most of all of those.
“I have goals I wanna try to achieve on the Xfinity side – try to step up, compete for hopefully more wins and compete for another championship – that would be great. There’s a lot of things between now and next season that I’d like to try and accomplish.”
Outside of gaining valuable experience in his five Cup races, the top priority for Elliott this year is becoming the seventh driver in Xfinity Series history to claim back-to-back championships there.
Elliott’s crew chief from last season, Greg Ives, has moved up to Cup as crew chief for one of his bosses, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ernie Cope will now take charge of the No. 9 pit box, and after working together at Road America last year (Ives missed that race for the birth of his third child), Elliott is confident that he and Cope can perform well together.
“I think [Road America] kinda broke the ice a little bit in being able to work together and race,” Elliott said of Cope, who drove in the K&N Pro Series West and Camping World Truck Series before focusing on his crew chief career.
“He called that race for us, did a great job. I’m excited. I think he does a fantastic job on the box. He’s a racer and will tell it to you like it is, and that’s what I want to hear. He’s kinda like me – he just wants to go and start racing and give it our best shot.”
Elliott also talked about the need to improve upon his 2014 season. He won three times and was remarkably consistent (26 top-10s in 33 races), but went winless following that third triumph at Chicagoland Speedway in July.
With that in mind, he wants to put his No. 9 Chevy in Victory Lane more often.
“I look at last season with, in my opinion, a lot of room for improvement,” Elliott said. “We were able to get a few wins early, and then midway through the season from there, we didn’t have the runs we were looking for.
“We finished third in owner’s points [behind Team Penske’s No. 22 and Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54], so if you want to be completely honest, we really finished third. So, we’ll try to step up, do a better job across the board … and hopefully contend for wins more consistently.”