CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Budding star Chase Elliott has landed a full-time NASCAR ride for 2014 with JR Motorsports, with surprise sponsorship from NAPA Auto Parts.
Elliott, the son of 1988 NASCAR champion Bill Elliott, will race for the Nationwide Series title at JRM driving the No. 9 Chevrolet in a nod to his father's longtime number.
The ride became possible when NAPA reversed its decision to leave NASCAR following the scandal surrounding Michael Waltrip Racing's attempt to manipulate a September race to get Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
NAPA issued a harsh rebuke of MWR and ended its multimillion-dollar sponsorship of Truex one year into a three-year contract extension with MWR. That cost Truex his ride at MWR and forced the organization to lay off about a third of its workforce.
But the Atlanta-based company had a change of heart, deciding to return for a 19th season in NASCAR to back the up-and-coming Elliott. The Elliotts are from Dawsonville, Georgia, roughly an hour from NAPA headquarters, and Chase didn't become eligible to compete full-time in NASCAR until he turned 18 at the end of November.
"NAPA is pleased to continue its long standing involvement in NASCAR, the most popular form of motorsports in the United States supported by its many loyal and passionate fans," said Dan Askey, president of NAPA. "Chase Elliott is a young and talented, future star in the sport and will represent NAPA well both on and off the track."
NAPA representatives declined interviews.
Elliott will make his Nationwide debut at the Feb. 22 season opening race at Daytona. He will report for testing this weekend and be paired with crew chief Greg Ives, who led Regan Smith to a pair of wins and a third-place finish in the standings at JRM last season.
"This is an opportunity of a lifetime for me, a chance to make a career of this," Elliott said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I couldn't ask for anything more than a chance with JR Motorsports, the backing of Rick Hendrick, and the support of NAPA. I think to have that connection with NAPA is really, really neat. The headquarters is not far from our house, and to me, that goes a lot further than you think. For both of us to come from Georgia, my home state, is special."
Elliott has been in the Hendrick Motorsports development program since 2011, when he was a freshman in high school. His first NASCAR K&N Series win was at Iowa in 2012, and he became the youngest superspeedway winner in ARCA history at Pocono last June. He then won in the Truck Series in only his sixth start when he won at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in September.
"I think the Nationwide Series is only a short step for him," said JR Motorsports owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. "He's that good."
JRM will field two full-time teams this season with Elliott and Smith in the No. 7 Chevrolet. The organization will also run the No. 5 with Kevin Harvick on a limited basis and the No. 88 with Earnhardt Jr. Ryan Pemberton will replace Ives as Smith's crew chief.
"This will be the strongest line-up we've put on the track since we started racing full time in 2006," said Kelley Earnhardt Miller, general manager of JR Motorsports.
Elliott will try to become only the fifth multi-generational NASCAR champion. His father won 44 Cup races, including two Daytona 500s; "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" was also a 16-time winner of NASCAR's Most Popular Driver Award.
"No doubt the historical element of this is pretty cool," said Earnhardt Jr. "Bill Elliott is one of the greats. I've always looked up to him. He had some great battles with my dad. I think there are a lot of Elliott fans and Earnhardt fans that will take interest in Chase's career and support him 100 percent."
Elliott will spend the first half of the Nationwide season juggling his first full-time job and the second semester of his senior year of high school in Georgia.
The school has been flexible in working with Elliott as he's pursued his racing career, but the Nationwide schedule will be his most intensive racing to date and mother, Cindy, spent part of Monday discussing a plan with administrators.
"I hope they are understanding because this is a full-time job and one that will require me to be gone a lot — but second semester of senior year of high school? There's usually not a lot going on," he said. "I hope that side of it is manageable because I really think I've been given a lot in this situation. I feel things are positioned here at the shop, with NAPA, everything is aligned for success."