One of the big storylines coming into the weekend was that 2014 XFINITY Series Champion Chase Elliott would be making his Sprint Cup Series debut, kicking off his five-race schedule for 2015. Seeing how the 19-year-old performs this season is on the eyes of many as he will be taking over the No. 24 at Hendrick Motorsports next year when Jeff Gordon takes a step out of the driver’s seat.
The big goal entering qualifying was simply making sure to make the field, and that was in question for a bit. Rain fell throughout the day at Martinsville Speedway and had qualifying got cancelled and fell back on owner’s points, Elliott’s No. 25 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet has none. As a result, he would miss the show.
“I went to bed last night, disappointed, looking at the weather,” he commented. “Part of me had a hard time going to sleep. That part was so mad that it was like I wasn’t too excited about making the drive over here in the rain. We were actually talking about if we didn’t get in, we’d go run a short track race tomorrow night. So, I’m glad we couldn’t go do that and we can stay here and race on Sunday.”
However, the session was able to get done and Elliott will start the STP 500 on Sunday from the 27th position.
“I don’t know how excited I feel about being 27th, but at the same time it’s real exciting to making our first Cup race,” he commented. “It’s just crazy how much different of a world this is on this side of things being timed so close. Just a couple hundredths would have had us in the Top 24 and a tenth would have had you heck, up near in the teens. So, it’s just crazy how close things are. But we’re excited and looking forward to the race.”
Elliott is working with Kenny Francis, who crew chiefed for Kasey Kahne last season in the Sprint Cup Series. Elliott commends not only Francis for his job so far, but also the whole team.
“This is a tough deal for a four-car team to bring an extra car to the race track; and especially the guys in the 5/24 shop, the chassis shop, and the engine shop, to do an extra car,” he added. “That’s asking for a lot. For them to do it, and the way that they did it, and to bring as nice of a car as they brought for me to drive this weekend, is very impressive. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the team I’m on and I want to try to do my job for them.”
Going into the 500 mile race on the tight half-mile paperclip shaped oval, Elliott says that they are aiming to do as well as they can possibly, “make the most of these races and try to just gain as much knowledge as possible”. That’s why he wants to run all of the laps on Sunday – 500 – to soak up as much knowledge as possible. The young driver has a lot of knowledge around him, as Hendrick Motorsports leads NASCAR teams in number of victories at Martinsville. With past winners Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to lean on, along with Kahne, there’s a lot of advice to be had.
Gordon commented that he feels that it will be a steep learning curve for Elliott and says that the weather conditions and lack of practice will make it diffuclt, but feels that Elliott will do well this weekend. He also added that he “kind of loves” the fact that Martinsville is Elliott’s Cup debut as “he’s being challenged in a big way”. Gordon has offered advice to Elliott, saying that they had a lengthy conversation on the phone during the week.
” I told him the things that I like to work on as well as some of the challenges that we face,” Gordon shared. “It’s kind of all new this week because of the lack of power. That’s really going to change a lot of things for all of us. I would think that most things that we’ve learned will apply. But we don’t know just how deep we’ll be driving into the corners, what that will do our braking, how early we’re going to be getting into the throttle. In the past, loose off (the corner) has been a big issue here and trying to manage that power off the exit. With this lack of power, I have a feeling that it’s not going to be as near as big of a deal. We’re all going to be learning as we go, so all I could give him was information of what we had and what we dealt with in the past.”
Gordon added that he’s glad that Elliott reached out to him for information as he’s happy to give any information that he can as that’s how he’s always treated drivers that he respected and have the talent behind the wheel.
While all the eyes have been on Elliott, he hasn’t let that build on adding extra pressure, but whether focusing solely on the pressure that he puts on himself to perform.
“I wanted to get in the race probably more than anybody else wanted me to get in the race or didn’t want me to get in the race,” he commented. “So, I’m sure there were plenty of people waiting for both ways. But, I always do my best to try to get in and that was our main goal today. So, there’s certainly a lot of pressure off to not worry about that tomorrow, and we can focus on our race car for Sunday afternoon.”