DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The boys from Brazil have taken a shine to the kid from Dawsonville.
Chase Elliott still is six days away from making his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut, but the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion already is earning the praises of his Action Express Racing teammates.
After Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr earned the Rolex 24 pole position Sunday by winning the Motul 100 in the No. 31 Cadillac they’ll share with Elliott and Mike Conway at Daytona International Speedway, they spent nearly as much time lavishing praise on the Hendrick Motorsports driver as they did bashing their rivals for alleged sandbagging.
Derani, an overall winner at the 2016 Rolex 24 and three-time winner of the Twelve Hours of Sebring, said Elliott had done “a phenomenal job getting up to speed” during his first three days in the car.
“Chase has been fantastic from the beginning, such a down-to-earth guy for what he achieved in his career and has been so open-minded coming here trying to learn from us who knows the car really well,” Derani, 27, said. “It’s always very difficult coming from such a different discipline to get up to speed in such a short period of time.
“He got into a very good level considering his very first time in the car, and it’s just a pleasure to have a champ here, a current champ of NASCAR, which is a great achievement. Hopefully we can continue to grow this very nice relationship that started this week into a race-winning opportunity next week.”
After meeting his new teammates in person for the first time last Thursday, he climbed behind the wheel Friday and has had four sessions on the 12-turn 3.56-mile road course where he won last August in his No. 9 Camaro.
Nasr, a 2015-16 veteran of Formula One who is entering his third season of being teamed with Derani in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, said Elliott “made a lot of progress” in every session.
“Chase is a great listener, and it’s a pleasure to have him on board,” Nasr, 28, said. “He’s an easy guy to work with, and I think he never jumped in a car that opened his eyes and it showed how quick those DPis are, and he said he had a lot of fun.
“(Saturday) night we gave him enough time to feel the difference from a new tire run to a full stint run so he can feel the tire deg and how to manage his pace in traffic. The more we can add on to him, it’s going to make next week a lot easier. But I’m very surprised the way he picked up his pace and learned the things in the car. There’s a lot of information we gave him, and I couldn’t expect any better.”
Nasr jokes he is Elliott’s good luck charm after attending the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s victories last year at Daytona and the Roval, but he also saw firsthand what Elliott could bring to the team..
“He’s a champ and sharing an experience like that with him is awesome, and having someone like Mike, another ace driver, longtime friend, it’s a great lineup,” Nasr said. “I’m looking forward to next weekend, and I’m sure Chase is going to contribute a lot to us as well.”
During an interview with NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee before Sunday’s Motul 100, Elliott, 25, credited his teammates for being “amazing trying to help me. They’ve been super patient and I’ve been taking up their time in the car, and they’ve been awesome. Just trying to learn and learn fast.”
Elliott said he had a mini-breakthrough Saturday night while running 22 laps in the team’s fourth practice session, getting a better feel for the unfamiliar precision stopping and high downforce (which allow for a later corner entry but require a more delicate brake modulation).
“It’s been interesting as I’ve found those limits and pushed myself to get closer to the car’s limits, it starts to feel like a race car,” Elliott said. “When it starts to feel like a race car, I feel like things become more universal, no matter what you’re driving, so I was super pleased (Saturday) night.
“I thought I started making some gains, and when that was happening, it was, ‘OK, this is a race car again.’ My limits are in different places, but you still try to push and find them, so I’ve been having a lot of fun with that and just getting used to a new world. So I hope next week goes really well.”