Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – As Chase Elliott visited with students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Wednesday, he had a perfect view of Daytona International Speedway next door to the school campus.
Having earned his private pilot license as a teenager in high school, the school is a place Elliott appreciates. And as a rising star in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the speedway is a venue representing historic potential.
For Elliott, who has won two Daytona 500 Busch Pole positions and nearly won the sport’s greatest race, the setting was a gentle reminder of what may also await the popular 22-year-old later this week as the series races at Michigan International Speedway – another venue where Elliott has proven to be an almost instant Cup success story.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver finished runner-up in the first three of his four visits to the two-mile Michigan track. His worst showing? Eighth place, in last year’s August stop. Still a top-10 finish and, in all, the effort good enough to make Elliott a top-rated driver as the series returns this weekend for the FireKeepers Casino 400 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“I look forward to going to Michigan,’’ Elliott said from Daytona Beach on Wednesday, where he was promoting the upcoming Coke Zero Sugar 400 summer race before travelling north to Michigan.
“I don’t really know why Michigan has been good to us. We didn’t have as good a run there last fall as we had in other races, but it’s been a good pace for the most part and I certainly look forward to going there.”
If history continues to be an indicator of what to expect in this weekend’s FireKeeper’s Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway, then NASCAR’s best young drivers have plenty to look forward to.
Ironically, those with the least history have historically fared well at Michigan in the last few races.
Fifth-year Monster Energy Series driver Kyle Larson 25, is not only the defending race winner, but the Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet driver boasts a three-race winning streak at the track. Michigan-native Erik Jones, 22, has finishes of third and 13th in his two starts. As with Elliott, they are among the top-ranked drivers in competition. Albeit with fewer starts than much of the field, but Larson’s driver rating (101.1) is third-ranked and Jones is fourth-ranked (98.4) heading into Sunday’s race.
While his past showing is certainly encouraging, Elliott is quick to caution about the fast start for himself and his fellow young drivers. He is just hopeful his long-term body of work echoes his early performance.
“One thing I know for sure, those driver ratings are based on four races for me compared to probably 24 races for a lot of other guys,’’ Elliott said. “They’re skewed because we’ve run pretty well every time we’ve gone, but that’s not always going to be the case. In 10 years if I still have a job, we’ll see how the numbers are then. That will be the real test.”
Elliott did allow that he felt more optimistic this week. Chevrolet is looking for its first win since the season-opening Daytona 500 and Elliott echoed a lot of Chevy drivers’ feelings that the next win feels imminent.
Three drivers – Ford’s Kevin Harvick and Toyota’s Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have won 11 of the first 14 races. But at Michigan International Speedway, Chevrolet has dominated as of late with Larson’s three wins and Elliott’s three runner-ups in the past four races serving notice.
“I think we’ve improved,’’ Elliott said emphatically. “I can’t say we’re perfect. I can’t say we’re the best each week, but we’ve gotten better and I feel like I’ve seen more improvement over the past two weeks than I’ve seen in all year. So that’s encouraging.
“I thought we had our best race of the season and probably best race we’ve had in a while – since last fall – this past week at Pocono. The results really didn’t show it, but we had some strength in our car this weekend I haven’t had all season, so I was proud of that. I hope that carries to Michigan.”
Joe Gibbs Racing is looking to become the first team to win four consecutive NASCAR Xfinity Series races at Michigan. Kyle Busch, Daniel Suarez and Denny Hamlin have hoisted the last three trophies, but Busch is the only one of the three entered this weekend. Christopher Bell and Brandon Jones are hoping to join that elite JGR club. And should the team win, it would become the all-time winningest Xfinity team at Michigan – breaking a tie with Roush Fenway Racing (five wins).
The odds certainly seem to favor the opportunity. Busch is a two-time race winner and has an amazing track record at Michigan with nine top fives and an average finish of 4.0 in 10 starts. His lone finish outside the top five was 14th in 2006. In six of those 10 races at Michigan, he has finished third or better.
This will be Bell’s Xfinity Series debut at Michigan but he has a runner-up finish in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at the track. Jones has two top-10 finishes in two Xfinity starts here.
ON A ROLL
Veteran driver Johnny Sauter not only leads the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship standings, he shows up at Texas Motor Speedway for this weekend’s PPG 400 a four-time winner on the 1.5-mile high banks. He has three victories already this season and is poised to tie a career-best mark of four wins (2017) only eight races into the 2018 season.
Sauter won the series’ last race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and three previous times in his career (2013, 2016, 2017) he’s won back-to-back races on the schedule.
Taking a Texas trophy, in particular, has historically been a good sign for the winner. The past four series champions visited Texas’ famous Victory Lane in their championship season. Sauter has won two of the last three Texas races and is the defending winner.