By Kenny Bruce - NASCAR.com
Bill Elliott remembers the conversations with his son.
"I said 'If you want to race, then we'll go race. But if you want to go hang out with your buddies on Saturday night, then you can do that. It's your choice,' " Elliott recalled recently.
Chase Elliott wanted to race. He wanted to race small cars and big cars, on dirt and on asphalt. So he did. He raced and he won and he lost and he learned.
And in 2016, two years removed from winning NASCAR's XFINITY Series title, the youngster was handed the keys to his future -- the seat in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driven at the time by four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.
Sunday's 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) signals the end of the '16 season. Elliott will enter the race 10th in points, having qualified for the championship-determining Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup but falling out of title contention after a difficult second round.
There have been "a lot of ups and downs this year," he said.
"I think the biggest thing I've seen as I've run throughout this year, and Jeff touched on it as we talked in the offseason, he just kept bragging on this group of guys and how good they were and kept saying, 'Man, you're going to a really good group.' I think you have to see some of those things firsthand to really recognize it and appreciate it and as I've gone through this season I really have. I've got some of the best cars you could have to drive. They make me look a lot better than I am.
"Those are the kinds of people you want to be surrounded with if you can do that. I really had nothing to do with the group of people that I was assigned, I was just lucky to fall into place where I did at the time I did. That's been one of my biggest takeaways."
"I've had some really good cars to drive and I think having that good relationship with this group and to be able to count on the job that Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) does ... he does an incredible job and doesn't get enough credit; he makes my job as easy as you could have it."
Elliott has 10 top fives and 17 top-10 finishes this season and won a pair of poles -- at Daytona's season opener and the unpredictable Talladega. He earned career-best second-place finishes at both Michigan races this year and was third twice in the opening round of the Chase.
"I think he's very competitive and in the race car to me he's a veteran," Gordon said. "I know he's beat himself up a few times outside the race car but I like that. That means that second or third is not good enough for him. He's got a bright future."
The fact that he was able to qualify for the Chase, Gordon said, wasn't a surprise. Not after Elliott won the XFINITY Series title his first time out while driving for JR Motorsports. Paired with teammates Jimmie Johnson, a six-time series champion, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr., at HMS, Gordon expected the 20-year-old to excel.
"You still never know," Gordon said. "Especially at the Cup level it's very competitive. Not just in the garage level but at Hendrick. To have Jimmie and Kasey and Junior as your teammates, that's going to make you have to step up. But I don't think we would have put him in there if we didn't believe in him. And you know there are going to be some..."
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