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Chase Elliott switches to car number with strong family ties

Elliott will drive the No. 9 Chevrolet this season, the same car number his father drove for the majority of his Hall of Fame career.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am Duel 2
Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet, leads the Can-Am Duel 2 qualifier at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 15, 2018.
Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Chase Elliott did not get too worked up over winning his Duel qualifying race Thursday night. His eye was on the bigger prize: the Daytona 500 on Sunday. But as he celebrated his win in the race that sets the starting lineup for NASCAR’s biggest race, there was one thing that stood out.

Atop the scoring pylon inside Daytona International Speedway’s infield, Elliott saw the No. 9, his car number that carries great meaning to the Hendrick Motorsports driver entering his third season in the Cup Series.

“I’m a little biased, but the 9 looks good on top of the scoring pylon,” Elliott said. “I would love to have it there more throughout the season.”

The No. 9 is synonymous with the Elliott name. That was the number Elliott’s father, Bill Elliott, carried for much of his career, including the 1988 championship, a pair of Daytona 500 victories and eventual enshrinement into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And as the younger Elliott progressed up the developmental ladder, that was the number he had on the side of his car.

That lineage of a son racing with the same number as his father seemed to close when Hendrick Motorsports promoted Elliott from the Xfinity Series in 2016 to replace the retiring Jeff Gordon. The move to NASCAR’s top division meant Elliot would now drive the No. 24 car, one of the sport’s most iconic numbers but also not the number Elliott had a personal connection with.

For two seasons Elliott made the No. 24 his own, and in many respects he did begin to build an identity with a number that Gordon had when he won four Cup championships and 93 wins. But it still wasn’t the No. 9.

Then during a casual conversation with team owner Rick Hendrick last summer, Elliott’s boss hinted that he might be open to a number swap. A few months later the idea became reality, and it was announced Elliott would have the No. 9 this season, while teammate William Byron would take over the No. 24.

“It is special to me just because of the history I’ve had with it,” Elliott said. “Obviously, I would have never chose that number to start racing if it wasn’t for my dad.

“There’s a lot of time I’ve spent with the number, a lot of photos and races and things that I’ve run with it. It’s just kind of home to me. Always been my favorite number.”

Elliott has good opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps in another way. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. now retired, his stranglehold on the Most Popular Driver Award is over after 15 years of winning the prize consecutively. It is Elliott who drivers have tabbed as the likely recipient of the award his father won a record 16 times.

“I think he’s already won the 2018 most popular driver award,” said Jimmie Johnson, Elliott’s teammate.

Veterans Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski echoed Johnson’s declaration that Elliott will win the award going away. Each cited the Elliott family’s roots within the sport, which includes the family being based in the NASCAR hotbed of Dawsonville, Ga., and how Chase offers a bridge between old school fans who followed his father to newer fans who maybe only recently started watching stock car racing and see the 22-year-old challenging veterans for wins on a consistent basis.

“I don’t think that’s even close,” Keselowski said. “I think we’ve been seeing that for the past two or three years, and [Elliott’s] coming into a perfect spot of having the ability to ascertain the southern fan base, along with the family namesake fan base. He’s in the right time with the right name to kind of inherit it in a great way.”

NASCAR is banking on Elliott to become the next face of the sport, much like his father and Earnhardt were for their generations. The recent retirements of Earnhardt and Gordon, along with Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart have left NASCAR devoid of star power.

Similar to how Gordon and Earnhardt fueled NASCAR’s ascension into a national sport featuring a boon period with billion dollar television contracts and new tracks sprouting up across the country, NASCAR hopes Elliott and his contemporaries such as Kyle Larson (age 25), Ryan Blaney (24), and William Byron (20) can lead a resurgence amid a period of slumping television ratings and stagnant attendance.

“I really think Chase Elliott is our biggest tie to our grassroots NASCAR fan,” Harvick said. “I feel like he’s one of the most important ingredients in what NASCAR racing does going forward because of his family name, and he has the legacy that’s already been built in this sport by his dad and he’s come into this sport with a great name and already proven that he’s going to be competitive. He has those Southeast NASCAR ties to those core fans that none of the rest of us will ever have, and he’s the guy.”

But first Elliott must win. And thus far he remains winless in 77 career starts, though he has posted seven runner-up finishes and nearly qualified for the Final Four championship a year ago.

A large majority within the industry is adamant Elliott will win and win big. And in all likelihood that will include a slew of Most Popular Award titles.

“Dad has had a great following over the years,” Elliott said. “I think the people that were big Bill Elliott fans, they followed me for a long time, not just since I’ve been in the NASCAR world. Just try to keep doing my thing. We’ll see as the season unfolds down the road.”