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NASCAR Champ Elliott Slides Out of Comfort Zone while Learning Dirt in BC39

It didn’t take long Wednesday evening for reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott to estimate the number of dirt races he’s had in his career.

“Maybe 10,” he said at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dirt track which, by that math, would make this week’s Driven2SaveLives BC39 Powered by NOS Energy Drink his 11th. “Four or five in late models maybe, a few of these (midget races).”

Elliott finished 10th in the Cup Series’ March 29 dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway, and last month made only his fourth start in a midget owned by Paul May Motorsports. The first, in January, had been in the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he finished seventh in the F Main.

Elliott ran two more midget races in February at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Florida, and before competing in a pair of midweek races at Red Dirt Raceway in Meeker, Oklahoma, and Solomon Valley Raceway in Beloit, Kansas.

For those counting, that’s about 10 starts on dirt.

This 11th race, sanctioned by USAC, had 71 cars on the track Wednesday night. For sure, Elliott’s inexperience was evident, and each time he climbed from the car he peppered midget teammate and fellow NASCAR Cup Series driver Chase Briscoe with questions. But Elliott got off to a good start, turning the 12th-fastest lap in practice. Briscoe was 22nd.

The performance was remarkable given Elliott’s tight timeline:

  • Shortly before 4 p.m.: Arrived in Indianapolis by private plane
  • 4:16 p.m.: Brought to his team’s pit area on a four-wheeler, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, carrying a clear bin with his uniform, helmet, gloves and an assortment of supplies
  • 4:24 p.m.: Fully dressed and ready to see the No. 9 car prepared for him by Paul May Motorsports
  • 4:30 p.m.: Helmet in hand, he spoke to Briscoe about the track conditions
  • 4:32 p.m.: Climbs in the car for what amounts to a seat fitting
  • 5:03 p.m.: Car pushed to the quarter-mile dirt track for his first practice laps

Elliott was asked what aspects of driving the car felt foreign to him:

“Everything,” he said.

Sliding? Getting the power down?

“Yes, yes,” he said. “All of it.

“I have not done much (midget racing), but the good thing is, this track is kind of similar to another one I’ve raced at, so that’s good. They’re both kind of small.”

Millbridge Speedway in Salisbury, North Carolina, is best known for its outlaw kart races. It’s about half the size of The Dirt Track at IMS, but Elliott said the flow of the action is comparable.

Elliott used the rest of Wednesday night’s track time to acclimate himself to the car, his team, the track and his competitors, but he has no illusions of contending for a top finish in Thursday night’s third BC39, the race which honors USAC champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 participant Bryan Clauson, the Noblesville, Indiana, driver who died following a midget accident five years ago this month.

Elliott isn’t here to win or impress; he just wants to improve each time he gets in the car.

“Going for one decent lap isn’t the same as racing, so we’ll see,” he said.

Jeff Gordon, the four-time Cup Series champion who is now one of Elliott’s bosses at Hendrick Motorsports and was the honorary starter of the Stoops Pursuit race Wednesday night at the track, expects Elliott to benefit from the midget experience. Even if he doesn’t, his willingness to try a different form of racing is good for the sport, NASCAR in particular.

“We love that Chase is showing interest in (other series),” said Gordon, who was a USAC Midget and Silver Crown champion before turning to stock cars in the early 1990s. “We think it’s great. I think it’s a great way to connect NASCAR fans and dirt track fans.

“Kyle (Larson) is doing that in a big way on the opposite end. I think it also shows the talent Chase has. There’s limits to that, but we’re enjoying seeing these guys in different types of cars.”

Thursday’s action begins with hot laps at 5 p.m. (ET).

Eight qualifying races are set to roll off at 6 p.m., with the first of the five main races starting at 7:45 p.m. The 39-lap feature will start at 9:30 p.m.

Elliott will be ready to stand on the gas, but as he said, racing against this deep field is a tall order for someone with about 10 career starts on dirt.

“No promises,” he said. “I’ve got a lot to learn.”

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