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6 Minutes with NASCAR Cup Champ Chase Elliott

A composite of Chase Elliott.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Six minutes. Three hundred and sixty seconds. That’s all you get via Zoom call with Chase Elliott, a man whose racing career is measured down to the millisecond. (This is not an exaggeration; in 2003 Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch by 0.002 seconds after 400 miles of racing.) Elliott, 25, is promoting his Peacock documentary Chase, which gives a behind-the-curtain view of a second-generation NASCAR driver and one of the sport’s brightest stars. Hosted by retired driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., the doc is ambitious in its function, as Elliott may be the only man who can not only arrest his sport’s decline but bring a new generation into the fold.

So the question is, how is Elliott going to do it? And how is he going to do it fast?

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“I feel like we live in a world where you can easily fabricate storylines,” the Dawsonville, Georgia native says. Elliott wears a heather-gray t-shirt and a flat-brim ball cap, a two- or three-day growth of stubble on his cheeks. “A lot of times, when you’re doing media, you get forced into doing things that aren’t you or aren’t painting the right picture. I just want to tell the story of what racing is: What’s real about it, why I enjoy it, why I’m passionate about it, why it’s hard.

“If you can tell the right story,” he continues, “you’re going to gain interest.”

Correlation does not equal causation, granted. But if what Elliott believes is true, then it may mean that NASCAR has simply not told the right story for the last decade. The decline of a thoroughly American sport (stock car racing came about as a direct result of U.S. Prohibition policies in the 1920s and ’30s) can be measured in the millions: Average viewership of its races dropped from 5.3 million in 2014 to 2.9 million in 2019, while its premier race, the Daytona 500, saw its peak of 19.3 million in 2006 fall off a cliff by 2021 to a mere 4.83 million. NASCAR does not release attendance numbers, but all it takes is watching one live event (although admittedly fewer and fewer fans do) to see shuttered sections and naked seats.

Chase Elliott at a Nascar race cheering.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Contrast that with Elliott himself. The son of retired great Bill Elliott, the pair became only the third father-son duo in history to win the sport’s overall title when the younger Elliott took the Cup Championship. That’s pedigree. The junior Elliott has also been voted the league’s most popular driver for the last three years. There’s your mass appeal.

What it takes to re-engage a lapsed fanbase while bringing the next generation into the sport, Elliott says, is for people to “understand what’s actually going on in what we do every weekend,” he says. And no, it’s not just turning left.

Chase, which was released on August 25, goes behind the scenes with Elliott in his hometown. Home is crucial, he says, and its component in NASCAR is unique in motorsports. Unlike, say, Formula 1, in which most drivers call Monaco home but spend most of the season on the figurative road and on literal roads around the world, the NASCAR season takes place entirely in the U.S., and the farthest one might travel for a race is to California. Elliott says he and other drivers fly home most weekends, and this makes the drivers much more connected to where they live. These hometowns are elemental to their drivers’ stories, he says, and are not simply stagecraft.

“The way we perceive [F1 drivers’] lifestyle is very luxury,” he says. “Dawsonville is definitely not that. It’s home for me.”

Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International.
Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

But with Chase‘s behind-the-scenes view of auto racing, it’s hard to not note the parallels with rival Netflix’s docu-series Formula 1: Drive to Survive. While not Tiger King-level, the F1 experienced a substantial boom with its second season among subscribers, opening up a subculture and sport with which few Americans had any experience. Once struggling to find purchase among a cluttered American viewership, early numbers for the circuit show domestic viewership growth that is anecdotally connected to the series.

Has Elliott seen F1?

A little of the first season, he says. “I’m really bad about starting shows and not finishing them,” he says, “[F1] fell under that category.”

Still, from what Elliott saw, the show did a lot of things right: “They obviously added drama, as you would expect,” he says. “But they told some interesting stories.”

Is one man’s star power enough to arrest a ship that’s been on the wrong course for a decade or more? It’s like asking if six minutes is enough time to accurately tell the story of NASCAR’s brightest hope. The answer is, it has to be. With Chase, Elliott is taking his first big shot to expand the sport, and he’s telling the only story he knows.

After years of the wrong story, what is the right one? According to Chase Elliott, “I want to tell the real ones.”

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Jon Gugala
Features Writer
Jon Gugala is a freelance writer and photographer based in Nashville, Tenn. A former gear editor for Outside Magazine, his…
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