NASCAR: Chase Elliott Already Looks Like A Championship Contender

Apr 29, 2016; Talladega, AL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Chase Elliott during practice for the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 29, 2016; Talladega, AL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Chase Elliott during practice for the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

Chase Elliott has already surprised a lot of NASCAR fans. If he continues his hot start and makes the Chase, he could take his rookie season a step further.

When you think of NASCAR drivers who had incredible rookie seasons in the Sprint Cup Series, you often think of Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, among others.

Whether they overcame pressure or rose against adversity, there’s only a handful of rookies that have come into’s NASCAR’s premier series winning races and competing for a championship in their first year.

It’s certainly been a while since the sport has seen a rookie come in and compete like a veteran. The last year that comes to mind is 2006, when Denny Hamlin swept Pocono and finished the season with eight top-5’s, 20 top-10’s, three poles and a third-place position in the standings.

In fact Hamlin’s rookie year was one of the best we’ve ever seen. Since then, drivers like Joey Logano and Kyle Larson have won the Rookie of the Year award, but it’s been tough to compare their first years to some of the all-time great rookie seasons.

This year, we could have a new driver to add to the competition for best rookie season ever: Chase Elliott. We may be just 15 races into the 2016 season, but he’s already been driving like a seasoned veteran.

Overshadowing his fellow rookie opponent Ryan Blaney, Elliott is sixth in the points standings and the highest-ranked driver without a win on the season.

More from Beyond the Flag

His six top-5’s is tied for third-best among all drivers and his 11 top-10’s makes him one of just five drivers with double-digit top-10 finishes. But Elliott hasn’t just been completing solid races–he’s been competing for wins.

By the seventh week of the season, Elliott already had three top-10’s, but at Texas, he took a step forward and jumped into contention late in the race, when he challenged Martin Truex Jr. for the lead before settling for fifth.

The next weekend at Bristol, Elliott finished fourth, after working his way up to second late in the race. In the 10th race of the season at Talladega, Elliott got out front for 27 laps and ended the race fifth, serving as one of the few cars to avoid a wreck. Then, at Dover, he had a late-race battle with Matt Kenseth and Kyle Larson that resulted in a third-place finish.

While Elliott had certainly been in contention, he still had one more step to take, and he took it just a couple of weeks ago.

At Pocono, he worked his way up to the front of the pack, leading 51 laps and controlling multiple restarts, while battling off drivers like Kyle Busch on long green flag runs. After a fourth-place finish, he went at it again at Michigan the next weekend and led 35 laps, serving as the one driver to beat Joey Logano on a restart. He didn’t win, but he did earn a second-place finish, the best of his Cup Series career.

While Elliott’s actions on the track have shown that he’s going to be the real deal, one of his most impressive qualities is the attitude he has.

He always carries a very laid-back, relaxed personality whether he’s getting ready for an exciting weekend or speaking to crew chief Alan Gustafson in the late stages of a race. You can tell that he has the same mindset as many of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, in the sense that he never really seems nervous.

One interesting thing to consider is just how determined Elliott is to get a win early on in his career.

In just his third race of his full-time Cup Series career, Elliott was involved in a wreck with Matt Kenseth at Las Vegas, sending the No. 24 to the garage and ending his day with a 38th-place finish. Though it looked like Elliott had nowhere to go, he thought differently (via

"“I feel like we made a lot of gains this weekend. Just a terrible job on my behalf. That is pitiful. We have run three races and finished one. Just a bad job on my end. I ought to know better to miss a wreck like that.”"

But his drive to improve hasn’t just come after disappointing days. He had this to say after his second-place finish at Michigan (via

"“Not a good day. Can’t do dumb stuff and expect to win these things. When you do dumb stuff, you don’t win. I did dumb stuff today.”"

Even after his best career Sprint Cup finish, Elliott was very harsh towards his racing and certainly did not celebrate a solid outing. With so much learning still to come, Elliott is still unsatisfied with just getting close.

By taking into account how his first 15 races have gone, let’s compare his start to the drivers I mentioned earlier, who had some of the best rookie seasons ever.

The past 20 years have featured incredible rookie seasons from drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. Through 15 races, Elliott has more top-5’s and top-10’s than all six of them did in their respective rookie years.

While he hasn’t led as many laps or picked up a victory, it’s still pretty impressive that he’s in the same class as some of NASCAR’s best drivers today.

So what can we expect from Elliott in the last 21 races of the season?

If he continues to race the way he has so far, it’s almost a given that he will win a race. Some of the tracks where he has his highest average finishes feature two annual races, meaning he’ll have another shot at them this season.

But let’s say he doesn’t get a win. He’s still likely to make the Chase as a rookie. Right now, he’s 89 points up on 16th-place Ryan Blaney in the standings.

Then the question deals with how well he would fare in NASCAR’s postseason. While the intensity certainly does heighten, Elliott has finished outside of the top-10 just four times this season and has an average finish of 8.3 at Chase tracks.

must read: Predicting The Rest Of The 2016 Chase Grid

Elliott is certainly following in the footsteps of some of today’s biggest stars, and he could take his rookie success a step further if he keeps up his solid racing and takes his momentum into the Chase.