Posted: 11:13 am Tuesday, August 7th, 2018
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
The wait is over. Chase Elliott has won his first-career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. He held off 2017 MENCS champion Martin Truex Jr. in a thrilling finish in the Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen Sunday. His win came in his 99th career start, just over halfway thru his third full-time season with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. That may not be exactly the fairytale Elliott imagined when he dreamt of becoming a Cup star like his father. But both William Clyde Elliott’s, son and father, had to suffer some near-misses before their Victory Lane kisses.
Each driver started with a family racing team. Chase with his affluent and established father’s Bill Elliott Racing stable and Bill with his brothers Ernie and Dan and father and car dealer George. The Elliott matriarch, Mildred, was both a moral and financial mainstay on Bill’s team. Chase’s mom, Cindy, was and is still a marketing and PR maven.
Chase had a bigger leg up starting out than Bill did, very simply because of Bill’s Hall of Fame success and comeuppance in a time when NASCAR was booming. Chase blazed through go karts and Legends cars to being a late model campaign at age 13. He won in the first two months of the 2009 season and won the Georgia Asphalt Series championship as a rookie. The fairytale was in place.
Bill succeeded on the short tracks, but struggled when he first got to Cup. This was in a different time, when really almost anyone with a car could enter and make the fields of races. Elliott’s scrappy, but ingenuitive literal band of brothers got the No. 9 Ford to the racetrack for part-time schedules from 1976-1982. But Bill didn’t get his first top 10 until his 16th start (the 1977 Southern 500) and often fell victim to the most common occurrences in races of the era: attrition. With so many levels of cars and so little of the polished sophistication and advancement of today’s generation, just finishing a 500-mile race was a miracle. Finishing on the lead lap was nearly akin to winning. So when the light switch of consistency flipped on, Bill’s results suddenly exceeded what was expected of smaller teams in those years.
Chase had great equipment through his ascent, but ran into a bit of a roadblock in 2011. At just 15-years-old, the high school sophomore signed a driver development deal with Hendrick Motorsports at a time when those were no longer en vogue. Along with his heavy pro and super late model diet, Elliott would now compete full-time for Hendrick in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
The heavier K&N cars, higher experience level, and fact that Elliott was with a new team against more experienced ones in that series meant that his results were far more pedestrian than they had been in late models. Elliott had zero wins and only six tops 10s in 12 races in 2011 and just one win in the series in 2012 (the combined East and West series race at Iowa Speedway). He finished 9th and 4th in the points in his two years in K&N. Max Gresham won the 2011 championship. Kyle Larson did so in 2012.
Elliott kept burning up the local short tracks through those years and ran a partial schedule in ARCA and the Camping World Truck Series in 2013, garnering a quick win in each. He also won crown jewel paved short track races: the All-American 400, Winchester 400, and World Crown 300. He was rolling and ready to jump.
When NAPA Auto Parts left Michael Waltrip Racing, they partnered with Chase and JR Motorsports for the 2014 Xfinity Series campaign, a season where Elliott won three races and the championship with ease. On the eve of his 2015 campaign, Hendrick motorsports tapped the 19-year-old as Jeff Gordon’s replacement in the legendary No. 24 Chevy for 2016.
Elliott also drove five races in Cup for Hendrick in a NAPA No. 25 in preparation for his 2016 Cup career. He had a disastrous debut at Martinsville, but put together some solid runs aside from that. His 2015 NXS campaign netted just one win and a second-place points finish to champ and older young gun Chris Buescher. But Elliott remained extremely consistent in the No. 9 Chevy and carried momentum into the anointed 2016 Cup Series campaign.
Fairytale: commence. Elliott won the pole for the Daytona 500 and garnered extraordinary hype. But he got loose in the tri-oval early in the race and wrecked, as he raced three-wide in the middle. The rookie remained consistent, however, scoring his first-career top 10 the very next week at his hometrack, Atlanta Motor Speedway. Elliott went on an incredible run of top 10s and top 5s in the spring and early summer, then got into some scrapes and poor finishes. But he then scored his first of eight-career runner-up finishes at Michigan in August. Winner Kyle Larson passed him with 10 laps to go.
Elliott made a deep run into the 2016 Playoffs, but a wreck on a restart at Charlotte Motor Speedway swept him up and took him from championship contention. All in all, however, 2016 was a great rookie campaign and his numbers in 2017 were better. But a pattern had developed.
Elliott just wasn’t great at holding his position on restarts. He lost a World Crown 300 at Gresham Motorsports Park early in his Super Late Model career on a late race restart. And he famously lost several races in 2017 late in the going. Elliott finished 2nd in three out of four races to start the 2017 playoffs, including a Dover race he had in hand.
At Dover, Elliott had a comfortable lead, but didn’t change his line as Kyle Busch ate into the cushion. Busch passed Elliott with two laps to go. Elliott also led late at Martinsville, before Denny Hamlin infamously used him up and spun him out of contention for the race and likely the championship.
Then two races later on a late race restart at Phoenix, Elliott took the lead from Matt Kenseth, who made his Cup debut subbing for Bill in 1998. The restart, by the way, came as a result of Elliott and Hamlin racing hard, Elliott pinching Hamlin into the wall and giving him a tire rub, and Hamlin wrecking. Payback. Elliott led for 19 laps and then Kenseth got by him with 10 laps to go for his sentimental last win in the No. 20 car. Elliott was out of the Playoffs.
Hendrick Motorsports’ performance has been sluggish in 2018 and Elliott’s results have followed that arc. But the No. 9 team, rebranded for 2018 but with his No. 24 crew, has often beaten its four stablemates. Elliott got his 8th-career runner-up at Richmond in the spring, though he didn’t lead a lap. And while the No. 9 hasn’t been a factor most of the year, it has shown some life the last three weeks. Elliott was 5th at New Hampshire, 7th at Pocono (another race that he faded on the end race run), and then won Watkins Glen. He won Stage 2 in each race. Elliott was rapping on the winning door yet again.
Sunday’s race didn’t seem like Elliott’s at first, though the No. 9 started 3rd. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota was on a rail, dominating Stage 1 until strategically pitting just before the green-checkered flag. Martin Truex Jr. won the stage and hung in the top 5 all race long. Busch, Elliott, Truex Jr., and Denny Hamlin all duked out the top 4 spots for much of the day, but Elliott won Stage 2 outright. He then lost the race off of pit road in a strange pit sequence that saw him almost run over a crew member and Busch have to pit again for a fueling issue. Busch’s miscue gave Elliott the lead on the restart and set up an epic Stage 3 showdown with Truex Jr.
As Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota closed in on Elliott’s No. 9, one could almost hear the “Jaws” music. Elliott Nation, just like any Georgia or Atlanta sports fan, was waiting for the choke once again. On a tricky road course, the chances for foibles are plentiful. Elliott almost cashed it in on Turn 1 of the final lap – he wheel-hopped. He broke down what happened in the Hendrick Motorsports post-race press release.
“I started wheel-hopping and I had two options – knock it out of gear or spin out,” he recalled of the split-second, clutch decision. “We were coming to that white flag, I felt like I had a pretty nice gap, just don’t mess up, and I messed up, of course. I had to knock it out of gear and I completely missed Turn 1. Luckily, I had a big enough gap that he couldn’t get up next to me.”
Elliott has infamously been hard on himself after his failures to execute. But he acknowledged that those hard times got him to where he is now.
“You have to realize that you were in those positions for a reason, A; and B, if you were in them at one point in time, you can get back to them and learn from whatever it was that prevented you from ultimately getting a win and try to correct it to do so.”
Recalling these moments and the early career of who is now the heir to the moniker of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver gives a pathology of where Elliott is now. He no longer has to answer the question of how much pressure he is under to win. Really, he has gotten that question since he was in grade school. And Elliott has always had to live in the shadow (or glow) of his father’s greatness and expectations based upon the smoothly paved road to his career.
The Apostle Paul writes in the Bible about trials wisely in Romans chapter 5, verses 3-4: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Elliott and his Alan Gustafson-led team have certainly persevered through their hard times. That’s gained them the character of these losses – loss being something Elliott even surprisingly experienced in some of his formative racing years. And with that character – and now a win – there is hope for more Victory Lane champagne and, with a guaranteed playoff berth, even a championship.