For one driver it’s his last season, his last Chase.
For the other, named Chase, he’s doing almost everything for the first time.
The first driver is Tony Stewart, the three-time Sprint Cup champion who is retiring from the series after this year. The second is Chase Elliott, son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott and successor to former “Wonder Boy” Jeff Gordon.
The 2016 season has been kind of a surreal experience for both drivers with Elliott getting the chance to race against one of his “heroes” before Stewart transitions into solely an ownership role in NASCAR.
“I’ve enjoyed racing with him,” Elliott said. “I’m glad that he decided to wait one more year because that is a pretty special moment for me to be able to race against one of my heroes like that.”
Each has been in the other’s orbit since Elliott was about 5 years old, spending time with Bill Elliott, who was still racing at the time.
“Tony is a guy I’ve looked up to for a long time,” Elliott said Thursday during the Chase Media Day in Chicago. “As many of you guys know, Tony was the first guy, other than my dad, I was ever okay with pulling for. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him.”
When Elliott sees how Stewart interacts with Kevin Harvick‘s son, Keelan, it conjures memories of how Stewart interacted with Elliott at a similar age.
Stewart remembers a little kid who never said a word around him for years.
“He would be at the car every week,” Stewart said. “Bill would bring him to the car every week because he wanted to come down and see us.
“I got him to smile maybe four or five times in the three years. But he wanted to come down here. You knew he was engaged (in what was going on). You knew he wanted to be there. You could see it in his eyes. But he never spoke. He never said one word for the first three years. When he got a little older, he started talking finally.
“I didn’t know if he was going to be mute or what.”
Seeing Elliott advance through NASCAR’s ranks to be a competitor on Sundays has made Stewart do a double take and realize how long he’s been racing.
“You never dream at that spot, at that time, that these guys are going to grow up and they’re going to follow in their father’s footsteps,” Stewart said. “I’d say Chase has got an extremely good chance of being every bit as good, if not better, than his father, and his father was great. … When you see these kids that are growing up now, you don’t realize how old you are until you realize how old they are now. Start doing the math. You’re like, ‘Hmm, it’s changed a lot.’”
Now, the drivers are attempting to make history as competitors. Stewart is aiming for his fourth Cup title and the first since 2011. Elliott is one of two rookies (Chris Buescher) in the postseason, the first since Denny Hamlin in 2006.
Unlike Stewart, who won three races as a rookie in 1999, Elliott is still looking for his first victory while driving Hendrick Motorsports’ famous No. 24 car. Elliott has managed seven top fives, including two runner-ups at Michigan.
“I think there’s a big portion of him that’s extremely disappointed that he hasn’t won a race up to this point,” Stewart said. “But I think the competition level keeps going up, and it makes it harder and harder to win as a rookie.
“I think he’s had an awesome year. I mean, he’s done a great job. He’s went to a lot of places for the first time and been spectacular in his first attempts there. So he’s definitely going to be a marquee guy. I mean, he’s already a marquee guy and is in his rookie season.
“As time goes on, some of us that are getting up there in age and are retiring, he’s going to be the guy that’s going to carry the flag and carry the torch for NASCAR.”