DAYTONA BEACH, Florida: Chase Elliot warmed up for the Daytona 500 by winning the Xfinity Series season-opening race Saturday, holding off Joey Logano in a last-lap bumper-car battle.
He then started his post-victory-lane news conference with something unusual and un-prompted: an apology.
“I didn’t get a chance to say this on TV. I’m not sure if it was my fault there with Bobby Labonte and some guys on the backstretch,” Elliott said, referring to his role in perhaps triggering a seven-car incident earlier in the race.
“Regardless, if it was my fault, I apologize now,” he added.
Elliott immediately took responsibility — just in case.
It’s another sign of maturity for the 20-year-old rookie who today will become the youngest driver to ever sit on the 500 pole and lead the field to start the Super Bowl of stock-car racing.
The kid’s all right.
“His father raised him to be modest,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who owns Elliott’s Xfinity car. “He’s way too hard on himself.”
Elliott’s father is former NASCAR star Bill Elliott, also known as “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.”
Chase is showing he might be pretty awesome himself.
He looked like a veteran in the homestretch against Logano, throwing a vintage block on the defending 500 champion.
When the drivers made contact, Elliott not only threw off Logano’s momentum but also kept control of his Chevy enroute to the checkered flag.
“We hit. I thought we were wrecked, which fortunately we didn’t,” Elliott said.
Elliott needs experience for the 500, but the cars used in the Xfinity Series are built differently and handle differently than the cars used in Sprint Cup.
Elliott, though, said working with a new crew chief, his spotter and learning pit row were things he could take from the 120-lap event.
Earnhardt said the biggest bonus for Elliott could be an intangible.
“I think he certainly can gain a lot of confidence,” Earnhardt said. “Confidence is such a big factor out there, believing in yourself, believing in the car.”
Elliott, Earnhardt’s teammate on Rick Hendrick’s Sprint Car team, is replacing the retired Jeff Gordon. He doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the pressure or expectations driving the iconic No. 24.
“I’m very appreciative, but once you get in it, you can’t see what number’s on the outside,” Elliott said. “You’re just trying to go as fast as you can at that point.”
Elliott found himself in a strange situation after he was stopped on the finish line before heading to victory lane. No one else was around to immediately celebrate with him—and that was fine.
“I think victory lane often gets rushed through. That’s something that shouldn’t get rushed,” he said. “I was standing out there in the middle of the front straightaway at Daytona with a checkered flag in front of me, with a bunch of people [fans]in front of me . . . a speedway with a lot of history all around,” he said.
“I just tried to take it in and enjoy that moment. You should enjoy them because you don’t know if you’re ever going to get another one of them,” Elliot added.