DAYTONA BEACH — Is this the year?
Is this the year Chase Elliott, uncrowned racing prince, wins his first NASCAR Cup race?
And didn't we ask that last year? And the year before that?
"Year 1 was the year I wanted to make it happen," Elliott said. "Year 2 was the year. So, yes, Year 3 is the year I want to make it happen for me."
And his sport.
NASCAR turns its lonely eyes toward Elliott, 22, the son of "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville," to save it from its free fall. Elliott would love to oblige. He won a duel race Thursday night and will start fourth in Sunday's Daytona 500.
Now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has left the tracks, Elliott is the new fan favorite. Among his fans are other drivers, even legends. They like this kid. To them, the future rides with him.
"He's awesome on all levels," said seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who is Elliott's Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "He's going to be a superstar. I think he's already won the 2018 most popular driver award."
"When he wins the first time, you're going to see things you haven't seen for a long time," 2007 Daytona 500 champion Kevin Harvick said. "When that happens, it's going to be good for all of us."
When that happens …
It hasn't happened at the Daytona 500. Elliott won the pole in 2016, at the tender age of 20. Came the race and he wrecked. Then there was last year, when fuel issues cost him a late lead and a chance at history.
NASCAR needs a reboot, Martin Fennelly writes. #NASCAR @NASCAR #Daytona500 @mjfennelly @TB_Times https://t.co/klJpvG8y6M— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) February 14, 2018
Heartbreaking as it was, Elliott came to accept it.
"I can't create gas," he said.
That's funny. I can.
On to 2018. A brand new season, one that has to contain an Elliott win.
I mean, doesn't it?
Elliott isn't thinking about what happens if he wins. The imaginary consensus is that he'll take off and never look back, and neither will NASCAR.
"I'm just trying to go and compete for wins," Elliott said. "I'm not in the position to be worried about what's on the other side if it's not promised. I'm living on the other side of it. I'm living in reality. And the reality is I'm 0-78 or whatever it is."
Elliott hasn't won yet, one of the biggest upsets in racing.
He came close in last year's Great American Race. Denny Hamlin helped crash Elliott out at Martinsville, when another Elliott win seemed within reach. Kyle Busch ran Elliott down in the final laps at Dover.
Understand that Elliott was still a success in 2017, finishing fifth in points to make the playoffs. He had 12 top-5 finishes and 21 top-10s. In many ways, he was more consistent than teammate Johnson, who won three races.
But he didn't win.
And that's everything.
When he does win, he'll probably never stop, and NASCAR needs that.
Oh, does NASCAR need that.
"The bottom line is, in my opinion, I really think that Chase Elliott is our biggest tie to our grass roots NASCAR fan," Harvick said. "I've said this a number of times, but I feel like he's one of the most important ingredients in what NASCAR racing does going forward because of his family name. He has the legacy that's already been built in this sport by his dad.
"And he's coming into this sport with a great name, and he's already proven he's competitive. He has those Southeast NASCAR ties to those core fans that none of the rest of us will ever have. He's the guy."
Well, time to be the guy.
Yeah, that's a lot to lay on a 22-year-old. And Elliott's famous dad, who came late to the game, didn't win his first race on NASCAR's biggest stage until he was 28; the Hall of Famer finished with 44 Cup wins, including two Daytona 500s, and the 1988 Cup championship.
Danica Patrick is leaving the sport that made her a star because her results never matched her celebrity. #Daytona500 #Danica @TB_Times #NASCAR @MBakerTBTimes https://t.co/EBKutfhACz— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) February 15, 2018
"I need to go and do my job better and win some races," Elliott said.
He's already popular.
"It's got to be Chase Elliott, wouldn't you think?" driver Elliott Sadler said. "His dad won (most popular driver) like a hundred years in a row."
Sixteen in a row, to be exact.
Awesome Bill has given his son advice, but he can only do so much.
"A lot of time you have to learn hard lessons yourself," the son said.
Year 3, dead ahead.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] Follow @mjfennelly.