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Chase Elliott is Carving His Own Path Through NASCAR

WATKINS GLEN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 04: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 04, 2019 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Forget the next Bill Elliott. Never mind the next Jeff Gordon.

Chase Elliott is perfectly fine being Chase Elliott.

The 23-year-old's NASCAR career has been one of following in footsteps. Bill, his father, won the 1988 NASCAR Cup Series title. Elliott's first Cup ride was filling the No. 24 Chevrolet the iconic Jeff Gordon left behind.

Elliott has sidestepped the footprints, however, and pressed forward to reach the heights they set years ago.

"For me, I just try to do my job," Elliott said in an interview with The Big Lead. "My dad and Jeff's careers have been outlined by a lot of success. At the end of the day, if I'm doing my part, and we're able to run well and compete with the top level of guys in this series, that's truly all I'm concerned about..trying to run with the guys that I think are the best."

"That's definitely a challenge, but it's a challenge I look forward to and we embrace. But that's the main thing for me, just trying to do my part."

In the midst of his fourth full Cup season, Elliott's resume is already impressive. He has amassed 72 Top 10 finishes, including six victories. The latest win came in last Sunday's Bank of America Roval 400 in Charlotte, his third win of the season.

That victory secured his trip to the second round of the Cup playoffs, which sliced its field to 12 drivers. Elliott enter's Sunday's race at Dover sixth in the standings, 19 point ahead of the eight-man cutoff line. He's the highest ranked of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates as well as the most prominent Chevrolet.

Now the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet for HMS, Elliott is possibly turning into the young, exciting face NASCAR has sought for several years. Ratings for the sport, which often place second only to football, have declined in recent years, but have begun to level off after an exciting summer.

Elliott's tenacity on the track and humble, youthful demeanor off of it make him an attractive option for a series looking for an icon after Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s retirement. He's fulfilled that end of the bargain with several magazine covers and pop culture appearances, includes an appearance in the animated blockbuster Cars 3.

Elliott, however, doesn't see himself in that manner.

"I don't necessarily view myself as a face," he said. "I just try to do my part and my performance on track is number one on my list. I'm not trying to be something I'm not. I try to go fast every weekend and try to win and do my job there. That's really about it. I try to keep it simple."

Elliott's career has been anything but simple. Despite his famous surname, he earned his way up to the Cup Series the old fashioned way: a lengthy, yet healthy, dose of time in the Xfinity and Truck circuits.

Equivalent to minor league baseball, these showcases have become somewhat forgotten in recent years, dominated by Cup Series drivers seeking R&D and drivers simply moving right up to Cup after a handful of starts (for example, Danica Patrick made just seven Xfinity starts before embarking on a fruitless Cup career).

Elliott, on the other hand, ran two full series on the Xfinity level. Over 81 career races, he's finished out the top 10 only 16 times and took home the 2015 series title. Prior Xfinity champions include renowned names like Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr.

"I had to do my time for sure, running some Truck races and then my two years in Xfinity," Elliott recalled. "You can learn a lot there, you race on a lot of the same tracks (as the Cup Series). Xfinity Series are pretty much all of the tracks that the Cup does. That's the big one, I think, just getting familiar with the different venues we go to. It's a nice thing to be able to learn."

In was in the Xfinity series that Elliott first adorned the No. 9. Upon his Cup Series promotion at HMS, Elliott took the wheel of No. 24's seat vacated by the retiring Gordon. After two respectable season, he shifted to the familiar 9, one currently sponsored by NAPA Auto Parts and Hooters.

"I've always enjoyed being No. 9. Growing up, it was definitely my favorite number," he recalled. "Any racing I did along the way, it was always in that number. It always felt like home to me, and that was the biggest reason that I wanted to make a change."

The switch has apparently worked. All of Elliot's six Cup victories have come in the No. 9 machine. And after years of Elliott following in other driver's footsteps, he's now making his own way to the top.

Elliott will start 5th in Sunday's Drydene 400 at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)