NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott isn’t going into his Chili Bowl Midget Nationals debut completely blind, but it’s pretty close.
And yet, in his first two races in a Dirt Midget last weekend, the 25-year-old looked anything like a rookie and impressed two of the expected contenders to win the Golden Driller trophy next month at the Tulsa Expo Center Raceway in Oklahoma.
Elliott finished third and fourth in a 30-lap and 40-lap feature last Saturday at Millbridge Speedway in Salisbury, North Carolina against the likes of defending Chili Bowl winner Kyle Larson, dirt racer turned NASCAR star Chase Briscoe and USAC Midget ace C.J. Leary.
He looked more than comfortable throwing sliders against Leary and earned the admiration of his peers as well.
“There were only 13 or 14 cars there but there were still seven or eight really, really good guys,” Briscoe said. “For him to run as good as he did, I was amazed to be honest.
“You know, there were USAC champions in that field. There were guys that win prelim nights and USAC races. He wasn’t exactly running around the bottom. I mean, he drove by me pounding the fence.
“So, I was highly, highly impressed at what he was able to do. Obviously, if you win a Cup championship, that means you’re a heck of a race car driver and that just supported it.”
Elliott said he learned a great deal racing behind Larson and Briscoe in both features. He’s leaned on both in making the transition to Dirt Midgets in advance of the biggest event of the year.
“I’m still trying to learn and just having a lot of fun,” Elliott said. “… It was interesting once I got to third, watching them and watching their difference of lines and kind of seeing how that was going to play out. I had fun and hopefully can learn from that race.”
Elliott is celebrating his Cup Series championship with a national tour of marquee off-season events. That began with a third-place finish in his return to the Snowball Derby Super Late Model race on Dec. 6 at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.
After competing in the Chili Bowl on Jan. 11-16, Elliott will make his debut in the Rolex 24 in Jan. 30-31.
In an interview with Autoweek at the Snowball Derby, Elliott said it was important to challenge himself as a racer after the biggest accomplishment of his career.
“More than anything else, I’m looking forward to the challenges,” Elliott said. “This is going to be really hard and that’s what I’m most excited about — doing something that’s different.
“I’m by no means saying I’ve figured everything out that I’m doing now because there’s always something to learn, but I do want to try something new and this is a great opportunity.”
Three-time Chili Bowl winner and fellow Cup Series driver Christopher Bell was watching the Millbridge event online and came away with additional respect, too.
“I’m thrilled that he’s doing it,” Bell said. “I think that it’s really cool. I don’t know if it’s important that he does it, but I think it’s really awesome the fact he’s willing to step outside of his comfort zone and obviously try something that is completely different than something he has ever done in his life.
“It gives me a ton of respect for him and I’m proud of him for trying, and yeah, it just ups my respect level tremendously for him.”
What’s the biggest thing Elliott has learned in advance of Tulsa?
“You just have to go,” Elliott said. “There is no waiting around. I think that is the biggest difference for me is the intensity level is up from the get-go and not just the last 100 miles of one of our normal events, which is really cool.
“You have to get going and if you have an opportunity you have to take it and I think that’s what makes this type of racing entertaining.”
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