Each week, The Athletic asks the same 12 questions to a different race car driver. Up next: Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott, the 2020 Cup Series champion and five-time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. The full version is available on the 12 Questions podcast.
1. You must pick one chore or obligation to do every day for a year. But if you make it the whole year doing this, you never have to do it again for the rest of your life. So what would you like to knock out forever?
Laundry. Just to always have your clothes magically clean, that would be great. I’m just not very good at folding clothes. I do my clothes a disservice when I put them away because my folding technique — my mom would not be proud.
2. Can you describe how you are as a passenger in a street car?
It depends on who is driving, but for the most part, I’m just along for the ride. If the driver gives the passenger DJ privileges, that can be your job. But I wouldn’t say I’m much of a backseat driver, if that’s what the question is aimed at. Now, if I am riding with someone who has a history of potentially having a problem and I see something approaching, then I might say something. Outside of that, I don’t say a whole lot.
3. What is an app on your phone you love using and think more people should know about?
I’m a Weather.com believer, and I like keeping up with the weather to see what’s going on. Obviously, we all do a lot of traveling, so it’s underrated. There’s no drama involved in the Weather.com app. You get what it tells you — it might be true and it might not — but at least there’s no one’s opinions on there.
4. What do you do to make yourself feel better when you’re having a crappy day?
Crappy day in what form? Like a bad day at the racetrack? A bad day at home? Those are different.
For some people, they’re one and the same. Some people can separate it. I’ll leave it up to you.
One of the toughest things about racing is when you do have a bad day, especially on the Cup side, you have to wait six days before you can get back in the car. That’s always a challenging thing. But as I’ve gotten a little older and I’ve done this a little more, you certainly learn to ride that wave a little better. You just learn to accept the day for what it is. The more you can just accept whatever it was and recognize that life goes on, the better off you are.
It’s not that you don’t care; I just think as you get older, your perception changes a little bit on just general views of life.
5. I’ve been asking readers to give me “Dear Abby”-style advice column questions and I’ve been matching them with drivers throughout the year. I picked this one for you because I thought you might have a good perspective on it. This person says: “I love living in the mountains, but it’d be more beneficial to my career to move across the country to the south. Should I stay where my surroundings make me happy or go where I can make more money?” I feel like you’ve gotten a taste of both places (Elliott lives in Georgia but his family also has a home in Colorado). So what would you tell this person?
That depends on a lot of factors: what the job is, how much of that can be done away from wherever it is they’re thinking about potentially moving to, and what the money difference is. But a factor that is probably overlooked is how much they enjoy being wherever it is that they live. If that’s something that makes them happy, then that’s certainly something they need to consider.
I would also say if the money gain is significant and the job can’t be done remotely, then maybe you consider trying it for a period of time. And if you don’t like it, go back if you can do that career-wise.
I certainly can support living and being where you desire to be, because that’s important for anyone if you have the ability to. If the options are better to move when you kind of lay them out on the table, then maybe that’s the better route.
6. Rank the following from most desirable to least desirable: a Braves World Series title, another Georgia football national championship, you catching the biggest fish of your life, you getting a week where you don’t have to look at your phone for any reason.
I have some of those (non-phone) weeks anyway. So I don’t need that. Megan (Johnson, his public relations representative at Hendrick) gets mad at me when I don’t write her back after a few days.
I enjoy fishing, but I’m certainly not the biggest fisherman in the world.
The college football scene, with the way the powerhouse schools have had such a dominant run, I don’t think a Georgia national championship is as rare as a World Series is with the way baseball works. As a sports fan, winning a World Series is really rare. A team can be really good all year — and the Braves are going through it right now where they’re the best team in baseball and have been hot all season long — but all it takes is one team to get hot in the postseason and there it goes, right?
I was fixing to be born when they won the World Series in ’95 (he was born exactly one month later). So (2021) was the first time I’d gotten to experience that, and I thought that was super cool. Had an opportunity to go to a couple World Series games in Atlanta when that was going on and just had a blast with that.
Postseason baseball is about as good as it gets, in my opinion. Regular-season baseball is good, but whatever goes on from the regular season to the postseason, it’s different than all other sports. There’s just a level of intensity ramped up unlike anything else you see.
7. This next one is a wild-card question. It took me awhile, but I’ve come to see you as a realist. When you’re talking, you’re not being humble and you’re not being too hard on yourself — you’re just being a realist and you’re saying how you feel it is. So when you’re that way, where does the motivation come from? A realist can’t have a bunch of cheerleaders who are trying to pump you up, because it doesn’t matter what they say. So does your motivation and encouragement come entirely from within yourself, or are there things people can say to you that would help make you feel better about a certain situation?
It’s mostly within, for sure. I try to view things for what they are. And not necessarily in all categories — because who are we to judge something we’re not exactly aware of? If you’re not standing in somebody else’s shoes, I’m not so sure we really understand exactly what that person sees or the way they are or why they think the way they think or the decisions they choose.
But I can speak for myself, because I do walk in my shoes. And there are reasons and ways I look at things or go about things — for right or wrong. So yeah, most of it definitely comes from within, but there are a select few people I have a lot of respect for. People who don’t typically have a whole lot to say, it comes back to the “less is more” thing. When you do hear something from someone you admire to a tall degree and have a lot of respect for and they don’t say much a whole lot — when they do speak, I find that extremely valuable. And that can go a long way with me, too.
8. In your career, what is the deal that came closest to happening that ended up not working out?
My entire career has been under the HMS umbrella with in some way, shape or form. The Xfinity deal in 2014 was really close to not happening. (Sponsor) NAPA came on board in December of 2013 and we were trying to get enough people together to go full-time there at JR (Motorsports).
But truthfully, I’ve been extremely lucky. When Rick (Hendrick) came in and said he wanted to help in 2011 or so, we didn’t really have a plan. He just said he wanted to help. I looked at things pretty realistically then — probably much like I do today — from the sense of I didn’t know Rick and I didn’t know what that meant. I’ve heard horror stories of people being promised potential opportunities. Especially in this world, there are a lot of promises that don’t get held up.
So I didn’t really have a ton of expectations when those first conversations transpired. But I quickly learned he was serious about helping. I didn’t really understand why, but he was very serious about trying to develop me to whatever that next step was. It was just this handshake thing, like, “Hey, I want to help. Let’s just see where it goes. If things go good, maybe there’s an opportunity down the road. If they don’t, we’ll all move on.” And I was good with that.
We ran some Truck races there in 2013 and we had been in talks with NAPA over the fourth quarter of 2013 (NAPA was a sponsor of Michael Waltrip Racing but left the team after the Richmond Spingate scandal). And they were on the fence and ended up saying yes to the deal late (in the year).
So it’s the opposite (of the question), which is a good thing. I’m grateful for that. They’ve been a great partner ever since. I feel very fortunate my career has been in one place and I would love for it to stay that way. The best thing is to stay in one place. You get to know the people at a certain organization over the years and you develop so many relationships, because this is such a team effort across the board.
9. Who is a person you’d be starstruck by when meeting them?
Honestly, nobody. For a long time it would be a musician or even NASCAR drivers when I was a kid. Or other forms of motorsports — like I remember meeting Travis Pastrana when I was a kid. He had come up to run Tony (Stewart’s) Prelude to the Dream at Eldora and Dad (Bill Elliott) was running. I was big into riding motorcycles and watching “Nitro Circus” and all that stuff. Just thought that was the coolest thing ever. At the time, (Pastrana) was reinventing freestyle motocross, and I had such admiration for the guts it took for him to go and do these things no one had ever done before. We’re accustomed to seeing it now, but at the time, it was just mind-blowing to me. I still have the hat he signed for me that night, which is cool.
But as you get older, I’m fortunate to be in a position now where you become part of the show, in a sense. Sometimes it takes this perspective … to recognize everyone is just another guy or another girl — and there’s just really no reason to act that way or be starstruck by anyone. Oftentimes, when someone is excited to see me, I’m like, “Gosh, why?” I don’t always understand that. I’m certainly grateful for the fans as well, but your perspective on some of that stuff changes.
10. What is the single most important skill a race car driver can possess?
The guys who have the most success in this garage on a weekly basis and consistently run well are the most comfortable in the most uncomfortable areas of the corner. And that can vary from track to track. But there’s always a place on track you can guard against, and you typically give up pace in doing that — or you compromise another part of the corner to guard against a discomfort area of another section.
It’s just math, in a sense. If you give up in one area, you might gain some back in another area. When you’re going in a circle at most of these places, there is an optimum way to get around there that cuts the track up properly to make straightaways long and extract the most speed. So it’s the guys who can be the most comfortable in uncomfortable areas on track, and that changes week to week.
11. What life lessons from a young age stick with you and affect your daily decisions as an adult?
Honestly, I’m still learning them. A lot of my approach and thoughts on things have certainly changed through my mid-20s. I’m getting close to 30 (he turns 28 in late November) and more has changed in how I view things over the past three years than they did in the prior 24.
But that’s normal. You hear that from people — as you get older, there are just certain parts of your life you just really learn more. Maybe the experiences you’re going through at that point in time open your eyes to certain things. I definitely don’t think I have it all figured out by any means, but I try to be open-minded in what I see and the people who I admire. … You can learn a lot from other folks because there are a lot of smart people out there who have gone about things the right way and have a really nice approach to life or maybe their professional life or both. So it’s wise to just pay attention to people and see what you can learn from them.
12. Each week, I ask a question driver can be a question for the next person. The last one was Ryan Preece and he wanted to ask about the Snowball Derby. Are you running it this year?
I’m not, no.
Well, if you were to win it again, as someone who comes in and out at times and is not consistently in those cars, what would that mean to you?
That’s a good question because when we won the Snowball a couple of times that we did, we were very involved and racing all the time. Now that I have gone away from that world and I’ve gone back and run some races, it is a different vibe a little bit because you’re not there every week and it’s tough.
This year, I feel like we ran just the right amount of races. At the very end of the races I ran, I was getting confident in some of the things I was needing and driving and feeling in the car. I was able to start picking out important pieces and factors. So it would certainly be meaningful to go back and win a race like that.
But just to be competitive when you show up — most of the races we ran this year (had) the guys who do the Snowball thing and are going to be the ones to beat there. So the way I look at it is if we’re able to go to whatever races we pick and be competitive with those guys, that’s good with me. That’s meaningful for me, and I feel like we’ve accomplished something to go and race for wins with that crowd.
The next interview I’m doing is Carson Hocevar. Do you have a question I might be able to ask him?
I honestly don’t know Carson very well. I’m not sure I’ve ever spoken a word to Carson. But over the last few weeks, he’s done a tremendous job filling in and driving the 42 car.
For me, this car is the first time I’ve had a generational change in a vehicle, but I have a history with something else. So transitioning, I have had challenges. For someone like him, I’m just curious if the car suits his driving style or him coming in and not having any history with something else is allowing him to have such an open mind that he’s able to piece it together quickly because he doesn’t know any better. I would be curious if he’s even thought about that or if there’s any truth to that.
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(Top photo: Sean Gardner / Getty Images)