Two of NASCAR’s brightest up and coming talents could be headed for starkly different fates before this season ends.
If there’s such a thing as a sub-division of NASCAR’s 25 and under contingent for more established drivers, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson are probably the only two members of it (with Ryan Blaney coming up very fast). Both have driven more NASCAR Cup Series seasons than most other so-called Young Guns — two for Elliott, four for Larson, not counting 2018. Elliott has a famous family name and drives for one of the premier teams in the sport, while Larson has proven himself with five Cup Series wins and numerous runner-up finishes.
No one would argue that both are extremely talented, and they carried lofty expectations into the 2018 NASCAR season. There was thought that one or both would make what Bill Simmons calls “The Leap” and turn into bona fide championship contenders, making a claim to be equals to the likes of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.
So far, Elliott and Larson have struggled in comparison to those expectations and the performances they turned in to start last season. Through eight races, there are no escaping their relative struggles:
- 2017 – Average finish = 7.8, six top-10s, worst finish of 14th
- 2018 – Average finish = 18.1, three top-10s, three finishes of 29th or worse
- 2017 – Average finish = 5.5, five top-5s, four second-place finishes, one win
- 2018 – Average finish = 13.1, three top-5s
The common ground between the drivers is the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which may in the long run turn into a boon for the Chevy teams but clearly has set them off the pace a bit in the early going. A Chevy driver won the Daytona 500, and three finished in the top five at Bristol, led by Larson, but they haven’t shown the speed they’ll need later in the season at intermediate tracks yet.
There’s plenty of time left for them to figure things out, but between Elliott and Larson, only the latter has given you the feeling that he’s already found his swagger again. The 42 looked like it might win at Bristol, failing only after Kyle Busch executed a bump-and-run on it with five laps to go.
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Elliott has yet to seriously fight for the checkered flag in any race, though he’s looked fast at times. It’s possible he’s simply been mired in the team floundering that afflicted Hendrick Motorsports as a whole to begin the 2018 campaign, but while Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman ran well at Bristol, Elliott got caught in a wreck and finished 29th.
Now one has to wonder if Elliott could be staring at the prospect of a lost season if he can’t turn things around soon. He’s currently sitting 34 points out of a playoff spot, which isn’t too bad considering all the races left in the regular season, but he’s got to leapfrog a bunch of drivers to get into the field on points — including two of his teammates. A win could save him the worry, but he’s yet to break through with his first Cup Series victory and appears a tad further away from one right now than he did at this time last year.
The stretch of races coming up from Richmond to Charlotte could be critical for both men to determine which way their arrows are really headed. Larson cooled off just a bit at this part of the 2017 schedule, with the exception of Dover where he almost won. Elliott was awful for four straight races last year starting at Richmond, finishing no better than 24th over that span.
Considering how many other cars are running well week after week, it’s unlikely that Elliott and Larson can both climb into serious title contention. By the time the summer arrives, it should be much more clear if their 2018 fates, which seemed so likely to be intertwined before Daytona, really are as divergent as they appear.