Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott is learning this season what the great U.S. Women's Soccer player Mia Hamm once said: It is more difficult to stay on top once you get there.
Nine races into the 2021 season, Elliott sits winless while his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates have each visited victory lane. He sits seventh in the standings, already 149 points behind Denny Hamlin and hasn't led a lap in over a month.
Can Talladega Superspeedway, a track Elliott won at in 2019, be a place the No. 9 team can turn things around? Stock car racing's Most Popular Driver goes over his chances, speaks about NASCAR's role in racial justice in the wake of the Derek Chauvin trial and talks his friendship with Ryan Blaney in this wide-ranging interview with CBS Sports.
You're headed to Talladega this weekend, a track that's always been good to your family with three Cup wins total between you and your dad. What is it about Talladega that suits your driving style?
I don't know that there's anything that suits my driving style, really. It's always a toss-up racetrack, dependent upon a fast car and a good engine. Fortunately for me, I've had both over the course of my career.
It's a place where you need a lot of luck, where there are a lot of moving parts and pieces. A lot of swift decision-making … at the right time is key. You have to have things go your way at that track.
With the current NASCAR package, do you find it better to be the guy in front or the guy in second heading into the last lap in these pack races?
I see it both ways. … [At this year's Daytona 500], the caution came out in the middle of the last lap, which basically eliminated the second, third, fourth-place guy from having a run. If a caution falls like that, obviously you want to be leading the race.
But if you're racing back around to the flag, seems like you want to be the guy on offense. You want to be the guy who has the run at the leaders to get back to the start/finish line first.
Oftentimes, you don't really have a choice. You have to take whatever situation is thrown at you and make the best decision at the time. From there, just hope the cards fall your way and hope you position yourself in the best place you can be.
Talladega always seems to almost be like a home base track for you in terms of fans, almost even more so than Atlanta. Why do you think that is and how much of an impact has it been for fans to be back in the stands in greater numbers these past few weeks?
It's been great. I hope we're headed in the direction where we can have people back at the track. It's been encouraging to see people in the stands and have that energy back at the track because we missed a lot of that for the majority of the season last year. So I look forward to the environment this week. Talladega is always an exciting place, a great track to host a large number of fans.
Your good friend Ryan Blaney is the defending winner here. It's been a few months now since you guys made contact to start the season on the Daytona road course. I'm sure you guys have patched things up since then, how did you go about doing that?
Things are great. We talked directly after that, and everything was honestly fine. It is to this day.
Our friendship is great. Good friends can have tough conversations. I hate that he got the bad end of the deal, for sure. Obviously, that was not my intent. But like I said to him, "If I'm not trying to win, just like if you aren't trying to win … what are we doing?" And I think that's where we both have respect for one another on the track just like we respect our friendship. But we also understand we both have a job to do.
I think we've always done a good job of separating what we have to do on the track and the chances we have to take sometimes to do our jobs. That's just part of competing with a buddy.
Has it become a little more difficult as you've become more successful to separate the off-track friendship with the on-track rivalry?
I don't feel like it's changed much. The stage is much bigger now than it was when we were growing up, racing late model cars or whatever. But ultimately, I don't think it changes it a ton.
You still want to have that respect for one another. But also, over the course of that time, I feel like our friendship has grown off the track. I feel like we're better friends than we were 10 years ago, too. So everything progresses but you still want to respect a guy like we did when we were first starting out.
It's ironic NASCAR's headed back to 'Dega this weekend after what happened with Bubba Wallace last summer and days after Derek Chauvin's conviction in the George Floyd trial. Looking back on that weekend, what's your lasting memory of that whole experience and what happened in those couple of days?
Just a crazy couple of days. Initially, I just felt so bad for [Bubba Wallace]. Because at the start of all that, right, we were all under the impression of the same thing [that a noose was hung intentionally in the garage area]. And it wasn't good.
More than anything, I felt for him. He's a friend and you never want somebody to feel like that. To feel singled out, to feel threatened. That's not what anybody wants to feel.
I felt for him and I was just excited that the community came together to support him like we did. I know things changed and it wasn't what we thought, and I get that.
But I don't think you can look back at our community coming together like we did and view that in a negative manner. There was nothing negative about what we did. We took the information that we had at the time and we supported our peer. To me, there's nothing wrong with that.
Last summer, Jimmie Johnson spearheaded a video NASCAR drivers participated in where you pledged to "listen and learn" surrounding racial injustice. 10 months later, do you see yourself and the garage area doing that? Do you see that we've made progress?
I feel like in some areas, we have, yes. To me, it's about the Golden Rule, really at the end of the day. Treating people as you want to be treated. I just don't feel like it's that hard to do. It's not that much to ask of someone to treat everyone with the respect they would want to be treated with. No matter what you look like or where you're from. I don't see that being an unachievable thing.
So yes, I think our community … I feel like [NASCAR] as a whole has really tried to make a difference. But I think it ultimately comes down to each individual, how they're raised, and the values that they're raised with.
Nine races in, you're the only driver on your team who hasn't won. Does that surprise you, not just the drought but teammates Kyle Larson, William Byron and Alex Bowman having success so quickly with all the offseason changes at Hendrick?
No. I think we have a great team. From an organizational standpoint, we've had a great start to the year. Obviously, the No. 9 team individually hasn't won. But I'm not surprised by the success of HMS.
There's a lot of teammates and team members there that are very good at what they do. Build beautiful racecars … pay attention to every single little detail that has to be paid attention to. Ultimately, you have to take that product that leaves the shop and go execute with it on the weekends. I think there's four teams [at HMS] capable of doing it at a high level.
From our end, we obviously want to win. We want to join our teammates. Not just because it's me, but being a part of Hendrick Motorsports as a whole, I want to see our company have all four cars winning. That does nothing but just help all of us. I think it says something about a company when all four teams can win in a season.
It's a different vibe, it seems, in that the last few years you've been a step ahead of your teammates at HMS. How different is it that some of your biggest title competition this year might come from in-house?
No, it doesn't change my approach at all. I don't know how you would change it, right? You're still competing against these guys on track whether they're your teammates or not.
If we're fighting our teammates down to a run for the championship, that's a good problem to have. It makes HMS be a great place to be. So I'm genuinely happy for those guys. They deserve it.
There's a lot of teammates across the four teams that I have worked with throughout the course of my career at JR Motorsports (NASCAR Xfinity Series) and since I got to HMS. So you're happy for those people. They work very hard at what they do and you want to see them have success, too.
We just want to do our part as well. We want to step up and join them. Get some wins, get a win to start would be nice. And we'll go from there.
You've always looked up to Jimmie Johnson as a mentor. As the sport's reigning Cup Series champion, do you have a greater appreciation for how he did what he did now that you're trying to go back-to-back yourself?
Oh absolutely. I've always had a very large respect for Jimmie and what he's accomplished, it's nothing short of amazing, in my opinion. Probably something that will never happen again. We'll see.
I just don't think he gets the respect he deserves. Obviously, he's a great racecar driver but his leadership off track and how he's carried himself over the years ... to me, that's why he's a seven-time champion. There's a lot of great drivers, great teams and a lot of great crew chiefs. But not everyone can have that type of success and still carry himself at such a high level.
Throughout the first day [Johnson] got there all the way to that seventh title, I just don't feel like he changed much. I think that made people want to rally around him, give him all the components he needed to go be successful on track. It takes being a good person like that to sustain that success for a long time.
There's a lot of lessons to take from Jimmie and that's certainly one of them.
How much were you following his IndyCar start on Sunday? (Johnson finished 19th in his first open-wheel start at Barber Motorsports Park). I know Hendrick GM Jeff Andrews admitted he was checking it out while the race was going on.
I didn't follow it through our race. That's tough to do when we're running. But I kept up with it on Saturday. I wanted to go over there and watch and I was unable to make it, at the last minute.
I want to go see one of his events here soon. He invited me out. We had a chance to work together at the Rolex 24 this year so I talked to him a lot just about what he's seen, what the learning curve is like, what's new. It was good to have those conversations. I see what he's talking about now, and I feel like I know a little more about what he's fighting and what he's trying to improve upon.
I'm looking forward to him getting more experience and getting some good finishes. Excited to support him.