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2016 Daytona 500: Rookie Chase Elliott focused on racing, not celebrating

That Chase Elliott enters his rookie season facing heightened expectations is not something unfamiliar to the son of a NASCAR legend.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As Chase Elliott stood on pit road waiting to see if his 196.314 mph lap around Daytona International Speedway would hold up, making him the youngest Daytona 500 pole-sitter in history, there was no nervous pacing or any other indicators hinting that the 20-year-old was feeling the gravitas of the moment.

And when Dale Earnhardt Jr., the last driver with a chance to snatch the pole away, fell short Elliott didn't break into an extended celebration -- or any form of celebration besides some handshakes and high-fives with Hendrick Motorsports personnel.

"He's young, he doesn't know how to celebrate yet in terms of going out and hanging out and partying with his friends," said Earnhardt, a Hendrick teammate. "I mean, hell, maybe he'll be a late-bloomer as far as that goes. I was, too.

"I didn't really start ripping and tearing until I was about 25 or 26. I didn't know how to celebrate either at that age."

The aura of calmness continued when Elliott went to Victory Lane for the obligatory photos and later when he spoke with assembled reporters. Each instance someone asked about the significance, he demurred, choosing to instead deflect all praise and give all the credit to his team that had prepared the No. 24 Chevrolet.

"I don't feel like it's about me," Elliott said. "Nothing special I did to earn it. It's about (the team), the kind of car they brought to the racetrack. That's the biggest thing I look at.

"Daytona 500 qualifying day is such an opportunity for the teams to show what they've done in the offseason. The kind of work ethic they have, the amount of hours, the massaging they put in these racecars to find those extra hundredths and thousandths of a second that are so crucial on qualifying day."

That perspective will suit Elliott as he embarks on his rookie Sprint Cup Series season, made all the more challenging due to the fact he's sitting in the seat formerly occupied by the now-retired Jeff Gordon.

Growing up as the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, all the younger Elliott wanted to do was emulate his father. Mom, Cindy, had different ideas and encouraged her son to choose a different profession -- golf.

Electing for a steering wheel has proven to be a wise decision. Signed by Hendrick five years ago at the age of 15, Elliott quickly showed that he possessed similar talent to his father, who won the 1988 Cup Series championship. Chase scored a Camping World Truck Series victory in 2013 and the next year took the Xfinity Series title, making him the first rookie to claim a national division crown.

Elliott's rapid rise coincided with Gordon's January 2015 announcement that the coming season would be his last, making it an easy decision for team owner Rick Hendrick to appoint Elliott as Gordon's successor.

Now Elliott finds himself not only the namesake of one of NASCAR's most popular figures, but also the heir apparent to a four-time titlist, and in equipment that carried Gordon to the playoff championship round last season.

Expectations will consequently be high, and Elliott will be expected to perform sooner rather than later. Then again, it is a standard he's long used to being held to. And it's something he shares in common with Earnhardt, also the son of a former NASCAR champion who can relate to what his teammate 21 years his junior is about to experience.

"You're almost embarrassed by the attention because you don't feel like it's really deserved because you haven't done anything yet, in your mind," said Earnhardt, reminiscing about his rookie year. "You haven't accomplished these things.

"You see the level of attention that drivers get when you're growing up and you're around the sport as a young kid. You see what they do to get that attention. Then you come in and it just seems like it's more than you deserve."

Being able to adjust to increased scrutiny and escape the shadow of his father is something Earnhardt feels Elliott should quickly acclimate to. It's the sponsor obligations, the grind of a season stretching from mid-February to mid-November that entail an adjustment period. Earnhardt recalls by the final third of his rookie season he just wanted it to be over, as he was worn down and unhappy.

"That first year, you just run so hard coming in," Earnhardt said. "You're excited, you're pumped up, and you're exerting all this energy for nothing early. You don't realize you need to pace yourself emotionally and mentally for all the things you're doing away from the track.

"That's probably the biggest hurdle."

In preparation for a full schedule in 2016, Elliott made five starts last season with a best finish of 16th. His rookie campaign began on a positive note by capturing the No. 1 spot in Daytona 500 qualifying, though as Elliott admitted that had more to do with the car/engine than outright talent. (He was driving the same car Gordon put on the 2015 Daytona 500 pole and led a race-high 87 laps.)

A vastly more difficult obstacle awaits Sunday. Rookies are often shunned and find themselves without a drafting partner at Daytona, resulting in a quick drop toward the rear of the field.

To counter this, Elliott will need to demonstrate patience as he adjusts to running a Cup car in a large pack, something he had never done previously until Thursday's Duel qualifier. In that race, he ran up front early, lost the draft and fell back, then rallied to finish sixth.

The challenge is taking what he learned Thursday and applying it Sunday.

"I know our car is capable of winning," Elliott said. "I just need to learn what to do behind the wheel."