Consider the following quote delivered Tuesday by 20-year-old Chase Elliott, who two days earlier became the youngest pole winner in the 57-year history of the Daytona 500.
"I’ve got a lot to learn before Sunday," the son of 1988 Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott said, looking as solemn as if perhaps he’d just lost a bet or a dear and prized possession. "It’s definitely not going to be an easy task throughout the entire year. We recognize there are going to be challenges. This weekend I have a lot to learn before we get to Sunday to try to get an idea as to what is to come."
Clearly, the rookie driver who was carefully handpicked to replace Jeff Gordon in Hendrick Motorsports’ iconic No. 24 Chevy is trying to downplay expectations for his first start in NASCAR’s biggest race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., a two-time Daytona 500 winner and Hendrick teammate of Elliott’s, believes he knows the answer. Or at least he has a pretty strong theory.
Earnhardt Jr., who like Elliott grew up in the shadow of greatness as the offspring of a father now in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, remembers well his rookie season of 2000 and all the fanfare that it entailed.
Sixteen years later, Elliott finds himself in a similar boat but facing arguably even more pressure as the successor to Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, in the legendary No. 24 fielded by legendary team owner Rick Hendrick.
"I think the one thing that he’s probably worried about is perception," Earnhardt Jr. said during NASCAR Media Day at Daytona. "I think when I see a driver make those style of comments, he’s just trying to say the right thing. He doesn’t want to step on anybody’s toes or give anybody the wrong idea.
"He’s very focused. He wants people to know he’s very focused. We’ve seen his interviews. When he didn’t do well in the XFINITY Series, he puts it on his shoulders. He’s really, really way too hard on himself."
Earnhardt Jr., of course, is as qualified as anyone to speak of what might be Elliott’s motivation for seeking not to appear overly confident.
Earnhardt Jr. was Elliott’s boss the past two years when the soft-spoken native of Dawsonville, Georgia won the 2014 XFINITY Series title and finished second in XFINITY points last season.
In two years with Earnhardt Jr.’s company, JR Motorsports, Elliott won four races but more importantly established a reputation as a driver who does an excellent job at taking care of his equipment.
"He just wants people to understand that he’s committed, he’s a hard worker, and he’s here to accomplish his dreams and goals and win races and championships," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He doesn’t want people to lose sight of that or make assumptions that he’s taking things for granted, I guess."
Earnhardt Jr. also weighed in Tuesday on why Elliott, who doesn’t turn 21 until late November, seemed to be in a none-too-celebratory mood just after winning the pole last Sunday for the sport’s most prestigious race.
"He’s young," said Earnhardt Jr., who didn’t enter NASCAR’s top series full time until the age of 25. "He doesn’t know how to celebrate yet in terms of, you know, going out and hanging out and partying with his friends. 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."
Perhaps if Elliott manages to win in his first Daytona 500, he’ll figure this celebration thing out sooner than Earnhardt Jr. expects.