NASCAR: The Equation For Elliott Avoiding The Sophomore Slump Is Simple
Chase Elliott had one of the best rookie seasons in recent NASCAR memory, and arguably one of the best in NASCAR history. So will the Hendrick Motorsports phenom avoid the sophomore slump?
Ten top-five finishes, 17 top-ten finishes, two poles and a berth in the NASCAR playoffs. Not a bad season for a rookie. Chase Elliott might have come just shy of winning his first ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, but he did put in one of the best rookie performances in recent memory on his way to capturing Rookie of the Year honors.
Elliott scored the same top fives in his rookie season than the three previous Rookie of the Year winners did combined. Those would be Brett Moffitt (1), Kyle Larson (8), and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (1). In fact, Elliott’s 10 top-five finishes are the most since 2004 when Kasey Kahne scored 13.
Where does that leave Elliott headed into the 2017 season? With a lot of expectations.
“I really don’t feel any extra pressure from that standpoint,” Elliott commented during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. “I want to be me and try to keep things as straightforward as I can. I certainly appreciate the support we’ve had.”
For a driver replacing a NASCAR legend and the son of another iconic NASCAR figure, not feeling any extra pressure is a good thing. Recent history tells us that sophomore seasons for rookies haven’t been as favorable as their rookie seasons.
In 2015, Kyle Larson saw a dramatic drop in performance after his rookie season when he scored just two top-five and ten top-ten finishes, a difference of eight and seven respectively. Austin Dillon saw his season take a step back when he scored just one more top-five and dropped a place in the final standings after averaging 2.5 positions worse throughout the season.
In 2014, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was fell to 27th in the final standings a year after he finished 19th during his rookie season. Despite missing one race during his sophomore season, Stenhouse Jr. also had seven lead lap finishes fewer and had a worse average finish over the course of the season by 3.5 positions.
Elliott’s looking at his second season as just another set of races. “You hope you can continue forward and not look at it as Year Two or look at it from that perspective,” Elliott said. “You have to see the challenges as they come.”
One challenge that won’t impact the possibility of a sophomore slump is Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson.
“One thing I’m excited about, which I haven’t had in the last few years, is having the same crew chief two years in a row. I haven’t had that. I really enjoyed working with Alan last year. I think he’s one of the best.”
Limited track time with a new aero package is another hurdle Elliott will face in avoiding the sophomore slump. At the tire test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during the offseason, Elliott mentioned how he felt rusty jumping back into the car after waiting all winter to get going again.
A missed opportunity to test at Phoenix Raceway may also add to Elliott’s “rusty” feel behind the wheel. Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is taking laps for Hendrick Motorsports, and rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are both representing their race teams.
Elliott won’t have to sit on the sidelines much longer. He will be behind the wheel of his No. 24 car in “The Clash” at Daytona, providing him with some competitive laps before NASCAR’s biggest race.
The equation for Elliott to avoid the sophomore slump may be simple: don’t change anything. Only time will tell if that equation holds true.