Team: #24 (Hendrick Motorsports)
Top 5s: 10
Top 10s: 16
Best finish: 2nd (Michigan x2)
Points finish: 10th
Stepping into the shoes of a four-time NASCAR champion means that you have a lot of expectation surrounding you. That’s what Chase Elliott had to deal with when he graduated to the Sprint Cup series, replacing the retired Jeff Gordon in the #24 car.
Right from the off, however, Elliott proved he was exactly where he should be. He won the pole for the Daytona 500 and might’ve had a shot at getting a solid result on debut had it not been for a wreck early on in the race. Chase would go on to make regular appearances in the top 10, with 16 of the 36 races ending with the #24 in the top 10.
Toward the end of the season, Chase got closer and closer to winning in his rookie season, but each time he would fall at the final hurdle in the closing stages of the race; with both Michigan races being a prime example of this.
His consistent high placings would see him qualify for the chase on points. A very strong first round would see Chase advance to the round of 12 despite missing out on two more victory chances. The second round would start promisingly after Chase had the dominant car at Charlotte, but he would be taken out in a wreck later on in the race. Another wreck a week later would put Chase in a must-win scenario heading to Talladega, with Elliott failing to do so after finishing 12th.
Gaining rookie of the year honours. Elliott was being touted for rookie of the year before he’d even turned a wheel in 2016. Nevertheless, tough competition stood in his way, such as Ryan Blaney – who seemed to be battling Elliott at almost every race. Even Chris Buescher somewhat surprisingly emerged as a candidate after his shock win in Pocono.
Elliott earning the accolade is a testament to the strong first season he’s had in the Cup series. Many other drivers who have graduated the the Cup series from the XFINITY series have struggled to find their feet, but Elliott appeared to fit in right from the get-go.
“I’m proud of our season, for sure,” Elliott said post-season, “I’m definitely proud to earn the rookie of the year honors. It’s been a long season, a lot of ups and downs, but we’re happy to be here and definitely enjoyed racing against those guys for the rookie of the year this season.”
The fall race at Michigan. On paper, the 2016 Pure Michigan 400 was another great result for Chase. Michigan gave Chase two second place finishes this year, but it could’ve been so much more.
At this point, Chase’s bad luck in the closing stages of races was becoming apparent, with a few shots at victory having gotten away from him thanks to errors by himself or his team. This race was another example of this.
Chase had been leading well in the closing stages of the race, with Kyle Larson trying to hunt him down as the pair both vyed to secure their first victories. A late race caution would bunch the field up, which would be a nightmare for Chase. He’d lost a chance at winning at Michigan earlier in the season after spinning his tyres up, but this time he’d lose his chance after a poorly executed push from Ryan Blaney behind.
Elliott could do nothing to stop Larson from sprinting off into the distance and taking the victory, with a particulary downbeat #24 driver blaming himself for the loss after the race:
“[I] made another mistake. Had two opportunities to get out front there and kind of control the race and let Kyle get a better start on me. I spun the tires and didn’t do my job right. It’s about as simple as that. When your tires are spinning, you aren’t going forward. It’s definitely unfortunate. I hate to let my guys down like that. They bailed me out a few times today, and I gave it right back.’’
Chase Elliott has been one of the stars of the season in my opinion. He’s had some fantastic showings and he’s had several fantastic chances to take victory in his rookie year. However, there are areas that Chase and the #24 team could improve upon to ensure that no more chances slip away from them.
It became all too common in the mid to late stages of the season for Chase Elliott to lose the lead in the last few laps of a race. This happened due to mistakes on restarts as well as poor strategy calls or pit-stops by the #24 crew. If both Chase and his crew can sort out their issues next year, don’t be surprised to see Chase add his name to the list of race winners. Once he starts winning races, you can bet he’ll be a championship contender shortly after.
Featured image courtesy of NASCAR.com – http://static.nascar.com/content/dam/nascar/articles/2016/7/16/main/chase-elliott-module.jpg/jcr:content/renditions/original