Chase Elliott happy to seek the mainstream – if it wants him

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When it comes to racing outside of their comfort zone, Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers are used to it.

Since winning his NASCAR Cup Series title in 2020, Chase Elliott has tackled sports cars, midget racing on dirt, and even rallycross.

William Byron is venturing back into Super Late Models this year and already has a win to show for it.

Alex Bowman, a longtime midget team owner, made his World of Outlaws driving debut last week.

And Kyle Larson, the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, continues to eye an opportunity to run the Indianapolis 500 – although, he said Wednesday that it’s likely too late to mount a proper effort this year.

But earlier this week, NASCAR Hall of Famer and Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon had another comfort zone in mind.

“If you’re willing to put yourself in places people don’t expect you and you want to be there – the traditional sporting events and country music concerts are great, but let’s take that a step further – that’s what I’m trying to encourage our guys to do,” Gordon told the SportsBusiness Journal Monday.

“I didn’t want to host ‘Saturday Night Live’ [at first] – I was scared to death.”

When Gordon hosted SNL in January 2003, he was at the center of NASCAR’s last big mainstream boom.

Nearly two decades later, the sport seeks another. Could one of the Hendrick drivers help spark it?

Since being suspended for much of the 2020 season after using a racial slur, Larson has not only come back to win the sport’s biggest prize but has been praised for his work to mature as a person and make amends with those he wronged.

Elliott is the sport’s most popular driver. But his personality largely mirrors the soft-spoken one of his Hall of Fame father, Bill Elliott.

Then there’s Byron and Bowman, who’ve become regulars in the playoffs but aren’t particularly well known outside racing circles.

In discussing Gordon’s comments Wednesday, Elliott said he recognized where the four-time Cup champion was coming from.

“I think Jeff (Gordon) wants us to broaden our horizons. … He wants us to grow – grow not only ourselves individually, but our sport as a whole,” Elliott said. “If the drivers are growing their following, then likely the sport is benefiting from it too.

“I think he’s just trying to help everybody win. At the end of the day, if we’re all gaining a following or popularity in a different area that we typically wouldn’t be in, you’re likely going to benefit. And likely, we’re all going to benefit.”

But while Elliott’s open to broadening his horizons, he’s like everyone else. He wants to feel appreciated.

“Where I sometimes struggle with wanting to go do things is I want to feel like those people want me there too,” he admitted. “You want to feel like somebody cares about having you as a part of their show or whatever it may be – not just to check a box for them.

“When I feel appreciated and respect, I’m all in and I’ll go as far outside of my comfort zone as they want to get.”

Meanwhile, Gordon’s efforts to get his drivers more mainstream exposure may be working already.

On Wednesday, Byron confirmed that he and Gordon will appear on an upcoming episode of Fox’s reality competition series “Lego Masters.” It’s an ideal vehicle for Byron, who has made his share of Lego creations.