CHASE ELLIOTT’S TITLE RUN A SURPRISE FOR DAD, BUT NOT EVERYONE

It was clear early on that the 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series season had the potential to be special for rookie Chase Elliott.

Just how special, of course, no one really knew.

But there was a moment early in the year when Elliott’s crew chief, Greg Ives, thought he had a pretty good clue.

“I felt like after our Nashville test that Chase had the speed, our cars were getting better and my thought was that we were going to go out there and win races and the championship,” Ives said at Phoenix International Raceway.

The crew chief’s intuition proved to be correct.

With a fifth-place finish on Saturday at PIR, Elliott — at the tender age of 18 — became the youngest champion of a major NASCAR series, and became the first rookie driver to win a major NASCAR series title.

The son of 1988 Sprint Cup champion and 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott clinched the championship with one race to spare and holds an insurmountable 52-point lead over second-place Regan Smith — a JR Motorsports teammate — entering next weekend’s season finale.

So how did Elliott capture the title in NASCAR’s No. 2 series — and make history in the process — in such relatively comfortable fashion?

Ironically, through a trait that most drivers of his age and experience level sorely lack: Consistency.

While Elliott’s season will no doubt be widely remembered for wins at Texas, Darlington and Chicagoland, the second-generation driver has also quietly done a remarkable job of preserving his equipment.

In 32 starts, Elliott has recorded nary a DNF while finishing outside the top 20 only one time.

He has also finished in the top 10 a remarkable 26 times.

Pretty impressive for a kid who just graduated from high school in May, and had never made a Nationwide start prior to 2014.

“The thing is, he has 18 years of NASCAR experience, I feel,” Ives said. “Growing up under the leadership of his father and being around the sport as long as he has, he’s not a rookie to the sport. So for him to be able to do what he does is a testament to his upbringing and his discipline not only as a race car driver but as a person. I keep telling a lot of people that if you don’t have your life in order, it’s going to be really hard to get your professional life in order, and he definitely has his personal life in order, and that carries over to his professional life.”

It seems natural, then, to assume that Elliott might have acquired his proclivity for steering clear of trouble from his dad, a 16-time most popular driver and winner of 44 Sprint Cup races.

The elder Elliott quickly shoots down such a notion, however.

“Nah, he just had a knack of doing that, even from Late Models,” Bill told FOXSports.com moments after watching his son celebrate the championship with a burnout on the Phoenix International Raceway frontstretch. “As far back as he raced, it’s like, ‘OK, did he take care of it too much? And is he aggressive enough?’ But he seems to be able to be aggressive enough when he needs to be and have good car control and the things that it takes to achieve what you need to achieve in this sport.”

The younger Elliott took the points lead for the first time after scoring his first career NNS win at Texas Motor Speedway in just his sixth start. He held the points lead for five races, then lost it for seven races before regaining it with a victory at Chicagoland Speedway in July. He never trailed again.

“When his car doesn’t run well or he gets frustrated with the speed in the car, he never really put himself in situations and wrecked himself out,” team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. told FOXSports.com after Saturday’s race at Phoenix. “He’s very, very good about not doing that. He runs very clean and smart and he’s always quick doing it. It reminds me a lot of Jeff Gordon, to be honest with you. Very clean, smart, focused, good, fast driver.”

Much like Ives, Earnhardt Jr. believed when he hired Elliott to drive for JR Motorsports that the young man from Dawsonville, Ga., could become the sport’s first rookie champion.

“Absolutely, yeah. Without a doubt,” said Earnhardt Jr., whose JR Motorsports organization claimed its first major NASCAR title since opening its doors in 2006.

“Right out of the gate I felt like he and Regan (Smith) were going to be very difficult for the rest of the competition. Absolutely.”

Chase’s dad wasn’t so confident.

“Why, heck no,” Bill Elliott said. “Why, Lord God no. I mean, in your wildest dream you wouldn’t think so. To be able just to be consistently in the top 10 would be a stretch as far as I was concerned.”

Undoubtedly, this proud papa has never been so happy to be so wrong.

This article was originally published at FOXSports.com on November 8, 2014.

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