When Chase Elliott made a surprise appearance at the Southern Super Series race at Five Flags Speedway on July 31, his mind was already made up.
He wanted to enter the Snowball Derby.
By that point, it was just a matter of putting the pieces together, a complicated endeavor given his status as a NASCAR Cup Series driver these days.
For one, Elliott would need a car, because he hadn’t owned a Super Late Model in nearly five years. Since then, he has said it was his preference to only come back if he could reunite with longtime crew chief Ricky Turner, who engineered his previous victories in the event.
So, Elliott made a trip to the Florida Gulf Coast to assess his options.
“I had been thinking about doing it before that, and to be honest, that was really the reason I came down,” Elliott told Short Track Scene on Tuesday night. “We’ve been talking about it, and I wanted to come and watch the racing, number one anyway.
“But knowing it might happen this year, I wanted to watch a race and see what I could learn.”
Turner is currently the full-time crew chief for fellow Georgian Jake Garcia but the 2002 Snowball Derby winner was open to working with Elliott if he wanted to enter the Snowball Derby, but they would still need a car.
Enter James Finch and Phoenix Construction.
The longtime NASCAR Cup Series team owner and short track devotee was responsible for making the phone call that connected Elliott with Rick Hendrick. That phone call included a pitch to sign Elliott to a development contract.
This time, Finch wanted to Elliott to drive for him, in the Snowball Derby.
“James told me, ‘You know, I got a car that should be ready towards the end of the year,’ and that I just needed to go get it,” Elliott recalled.
The new Senneker Race Cars chassis from delivered from Michigan to Turner’s shop after the Winchester 400 and it was on from there.
“Fortunately, Ricky had enough time and finished the car in his spare time, because they had a really solid second half of the year with Jake,” Elliott said. “So, it all worked out. I came down and ran some laps, just to break in a new car, and I think it was okay.
“I hadn’t done this in a long time, and we wanted to work through some issues with the car and it’s better to do that during a test than race week. I’m just really happy to be here and excited to support an event that opened a lot of doors for me.”
So how did that test go?
“I feel like everybody comes down here and has great tests,” Elliott said with a chuckle. “I mean, have you ever heard anybody coming down here and having a bad one?”
“Exactly. So, I think the test is whatever you say it was.”
Elliott says he’s keeping his expectations realistic. With Terry Senneker and Turner overseeing his program, he expects to have a chance to win, but he also knows he’s five years removed from his last race — a win in the 2015 Snowball Derby.
“It’s been a long time,” Elliott said. “I haven’t been doing it. I don’t really know the ins and outs of what I need and what’s going to work. And the only way you figure that out is to race.
“I’m not going to learn all those lessons in practice, but I’m going to give it my best effort and make my best guess on what I think might work if we can achieve that. And hopefully it was all right.”
Turner says the test felt like old times, with Elliott not missing a step.
“He got in the car, and everything was brand new, so he broke it in,” Turner said. “When he went to go fast, he didn’t miss a lick. Obviously, the stuff he does on Sundays is very difficult and much different than this, but it allowed him to pick it up pretty fast.”
Together, Elliott and Turner won over 50 Late Model races, including the 2011 and 2015 Snowball Derbies. He’s won the All-American 400, the Winchester 400, Rattler 250 and CRA Speedfest.
Turner’s inclusion was important, but it was Finch and Phoenix Racing is what makes this week extra special to the reigning Cup Series champion.
“This to me was just the right opportunity with the right people, where we could kind of do it our way,” Elliott said. “With James being gracious enough to let me do it with his car was important to me too.
“He does an awful lot for short track racing that I don’t think gets enough credit. He does a lot behind the scenes as well. I know the people who he supports, with sponsorships and advice, and they’re all appreciative.
“But I feel like everyone here who loves short track racing should be too, because he’s a guy who has done a lot for short track racing and we need the James Finches of the world here, and I’m excited to drive for him.”
Even as the now 25-year-old has amassed wins and championships with NASCAR, his heart has remained with the short track community. He’s frequently discussing the latest news and results in the garage area every week and he’s remained close to those in the discipline.
His earliest seasons were spent in a GARC chassis prepared by Augie Grill. His earliest battles with spent against Mike Garvey, Donnie Wilson, Stephen Nasse, Hunter Robbins, Johanna Long and Bubba Pollard, earning all of their respect in the process.
“I have a lot of respect for Chase, because he proved he should be there,” Pollard said. “He proved he could win races and compete against the best on the short track level and backed up every step afterwards.
“I have a lot of respect for that. Ricky Turner doesn’t get enough credit for molding Chase. Bill too. They’ve had the same group there forever. He makes our community look good up there. We’ve had fun together and enjoyed racing with him. I’m really proud for what he’s been able to do.”
And Elliott shares that respect and appreciation.
“I feel like I learned some of my biggest lessons in my years here, and certainly my biggest opportunities came from my years of racing here as well,” Elliott said. “So, I think it’s really important to respect that, you know, as time goes on and remembering where you came from, in a sense.
“But most importantly, this is a really important piece of racing that needs to survive and thrive. It needs to be here. And it’s the responsibility of the people who are fortunate enough to do what I do to give back to it and respect it. It needs to last for a long, long, time.”