SALISBURY, N.C. — On paper, a third-place finish in one’s midget debut in a 12-car field might not be anything to write home about, especially for the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion.
But a deeper dive into the competition that Chase Elliott was racing during Saturday’s DiaEdge Carolina Midget Showdown at Millbridge Speedway told a different tale.
Elliott didn’t just get up to speed quickly in his first competitive day behind the wheel of the DiaEdge Racing No. 9 Spike/Stanton-SR11x at the sixth-mile dirt oval. By the end of the evening, he impressed.
The Dawsonville, Ga., native earned a podium finish in the 30-lap feature that opened the doubleheader, then backed up that performance with a fourth-place run in the 40-lap nightcap, running against the fence for most of the second main and tossing a couple of big sliders on veteran C.J. Leary.
It was an effort that turned plenty of heads, but one that Elliott remained remarkably humble about, in typical Elliott fashion.
“I think you’re being really nice,” Elliott quipped when told he looked very unlike a rookie on the race track. “I feel like a fish out of water, but I’m having a lot of fun and I appreciate DiaEdge and Chase (Briscoe) and Paul (May) and all these guys for letting me come out and do this. It has been something I’ve wanted to do for a few years and I just got to the point where I felt like I could either sit around and think about it forever, or I could go and give it a shot.
“I’m certainly trying to learn and I still have a lot to learn, but it’s a tough new challenge and I’m very glad to be here doing what we’re doing.”
Elliott rose from sixth to third in the first main event, running behind only Briscoe’s winning mount and soon-to-be Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson, who charged from a first-lap flip to finish second in the 30-lapper before dominating the night’s finale.
It was fitting, considering those two are the ones Elliott said he’s “leaned on the most” to get up to speed in a dirt midget.
“Chase and Kyle, for sure, I’ve been leaning on for advice … and they’ve been super gracious with their time and checking on me and seeing if I need anything,” Elliott noted. “I really couldn’t ask for anything more there as a driver. But you can only tell somebody how to drive so much. Eventually you have to kind of figure it out and sometimes it’s really hard to put those important small details into words.
“I think that’s kind of where I’m at right now, is that I’ve watched them, and I hear what they’re saying and it’s just a matter of me trying to put those words into action. That just takes a little time sometimes.”
What’s the biggest thing Elliott has had to learn during his transition to dirt racing?
“The aggression level you need (to be successful) is really high,” he explained. “You just have to go. There is no waiting around. I think that’s the biggest difference for me, is just that the intensity level is up from the get-go and not in just the last 100 miles or so of one of our normal (NASCAR Cup Series) events. That’s really cool, though, honestly. If you have an opportunity, you have to take it.
“I think that’s what makes this type of racing entertaining sometimes, for sure.”
Saturday’s twin features were Elliott’s lone primer to prepare for his debut in the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals, which will take place Jan. 11-16 inside the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Okla.
While he’s not expecting to light the world on fire as a Chili Bowl rookie, Elliott did call the “cool factor” of the Super Bowl of Midget Racing an important reason behind his desire to be a part of it.
“My big thing with the Chili Bowl is that I think it’s a really cool event. It’s an event I wanted to be a part of, but I really just didn’t want that to be my first race in a midget. I just felt like that would have been really dumb,” he said. “I still think it’s probably dumb to only have one (event) going into it; I wish we could go race 10 or 15 times before then, but at least we were here and had an opportunity to run two feature races today, which is certainly better than nothing. I’m not driving anything else in between now and the Chili Bowl. So I think that’ll help me some, too, as I continue to try to learn.
“If I can get some more laps somehow, some way, I’m definitely going to try to do that so we can be as prepared as possible going into Tulsa.”
For Elliott, life hasn’t slowed down a bit since he celebrated his NASCAR Cup Series title in November at Arizona’s Phoenix Raceway.
He finished third in a super late model at the Snowball Derby, added Saturday’s pair of top-three finishes and will have the Chili Bowl in January before returning to his NASCAR Cup Series duties at the Daytona 500 in February with Hendrick Motorsports.
In Elliott’s estimation, an offseason like this is the best way to soak in his Cup title: by racing even more.
“I think it’s the best way to enjoy it, is to come out and race and experience new challenges,” he noted. “I feel like short-track racing is in a very healthy place and I think it’s a really cool thing to go to the Snowball Derby and see 15,000 people down there that love short-track racing and who got to see a great race. Obviously, the Chili Bowl is what it is and will be packed out too, just not as much as normal.
“I think this is the best way I can enjoy a great NASCAR season, is to come race more and I’d love to do more of this moving forward. I’m having a lot of fun.”