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Elliott Hoping To Hear Siren’s Song On Sunday

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 8 2020

Chase Elliott and father Bill could end up celebrating another family championship on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Armed with sage advice from his famous father and a high-profile teammate, the case for Chase Elliott as 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion awaits validation late Sunday afternoon from Gordon Pirkle.

Mr. Pirkle is proprietor of the Dawsonville Pool Room, a counter-serve Southern eatery offering burgers and franks on paper plates in a race car-themed setting at 9 Bill Elliott St., Dawsonville, Ga. 30534. In his role as local historian, the 83-year-old Pirkle proudly has sounded a siren anchored at his establishment after each of the combined 54 Cup Series victories scored by “Awesome” Bill (44) and his boy (10).

“I’ve never been around for it. I’ve seen videos and stuff,” Chase Elliott said while previewing Sunday’s Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway in suburban Avondale, Ariz. “It’s a really cool tradition. Gordon Pirkle, the guy that has owned the pool room, that’s kind of been his thing. I think it’s cool of him to carry that tradition on, be able to still do that. I’m grateful for that. I think it’s a cool thing.

“I would love for it to go off on Sunday. I certainly hope that’s the case. Fortunate that I’ve been lucky enough that they wanted to carry it on and want to keep doing it.”

Elliott, of Hendrick Motorsports, advanced to his first spot in NASCAR’s Championship 4 via a must-win victory at Martinsville Speedway last Sunday. He will race today against Team Penske teammates and former Cup champions Brad Keselowski (2012) and Joey Logano (2018) in their Ford Mustangs and Denny Hamlin in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry for 312 laps/miles (NBC, 3 p.m., EST, and MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Bill Elliott, the 1988 Cup champion and the series’ perennial Most Popular Driver, has advised his 24-year-old son to enjoy the moment.

Chase Elliott is one victory away from a Cup crown. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

“These aren’t things you can take for granted,” said Chase, echoing his dad. “You don’t know when your last race win is. You don’t know what tomorrow brings. Nothing’s guaranteed, right? I think just enjoying these moments, trying to embrace them, especially after a race like Sunday _ you wish you could just slow down time and enjoy that moment and make it last a little longer _ but you can’t. You just have to enjoy ’em as much as you can, put emphasis on that.

“I feel like that’s where I’m at right now, is not taking the situation for granted, knowing it’s not an easy thing, knowing it’s not something that comes every day, try to make the most of a great opportunity.”

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who will exit the series after this race, effectively handed the mantle as Hendrick’s leading man to Chase with similar words of wisdom. 

“I think his message throughout the week is just do the things that kind of make you, you,” Chase said. “Now is not the time to try to re-invent the wheel or do things different, change who you are. Just go about your thing as you always have. That’s the kind of process that has led us to this point. There’s no need in changing who you are now. It’s one of those things that probably aren’t going to do you any good.

“Jimmie…such a great individual, person. He’s a champion on the track and off the track. I think he’s made that very apparent over the years. I’ve been very lucky and fortunate to call him a friend, have him to lean on in certain times. Yeah, I’m certainly going to miss him being around, being a part of our team all the time.”

While Elliott has qualified for the Playoffs during all five seasons he has competed in Cup (2016-present), this is his first valid title shot. Through 35 races in this COVID-19 impacted season Elliott has put up four wins, 14 top-five and 21 top-10 results. He has led 1,094 laps and has an average finish of 12.0. 

Elliott’s career Cup numbers, all with crew chief Alan Gustafson, feature 10 wins, 58 top-five and 95 top-10 results. But mastering the Playoffs, Gustafson advised, is an acquired taste.

“Yeah, I don’t think you can really be prepared for it until you go through it,” said Gustafson, a 16-year veteran at HMS. “It’s certainly a different situation. Chase has raced to transfer into the Final 8.  He knows what it’s like to be in kind of that must-win situation.

“This is really no different. There’s a lot of focus on the four cars. That’s the majority of the focus from the press and the media and the TV and everybody around.  Ultimately, you’ve got to win.  You don’t have to win, but most likely you’re going to have to win to be the champion. There’s a lot of pressure with that.  Going through this weekend, we can help prepare him for it. Yeah, it’s a unique experience.  I think you have to go through it to really understand it and learn how to manage it.”

Gustafson has worked with five drivers during his tenure at HMS: Kyle Busch (2005-2007), Casey Mears (2008), Mark Martin (2009, 2010), four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon (2011-2015) and Elliott (2016-present). During those 16 campaigns he led his drivers to 13 Playoff appearances and to wins in 12 seasons. This is Gustafson’s second appearance in the Championship 4; his first was with NASCAR Hall of Famer Gordon in 2015, when Sir Jeff finished the season third in points.

Chase Elliott wants to smoke the field in Phoenix.

Phoenix Raceway’s reconfigured, 1-mile layout is playing host to the Cup championship-decider for the first time in its history, replacing the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway. Advantage Elliott? Perhaps, as Elliott has made nine Cup starts at Phoenix Raceway, posting two top-five and five top-10 finishes. He started on-pole and finished seventh at Phoenix earlier this season.

Chase also is the first Hendrick/Chevrolet driver to make the Final Four since 2016. Hendrick Motorsports is home to a series-leading 12 championships among three drivers _ Johnson (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2016) and NASCAR Hall of Famers Gordon (1995, 1997-1998, 2001) and “Texas” Terry Labonte (1996). Overall, Hendrick Motorsports has posted a record 15 NASCAR national series owner championships.

Hendrick Motorsports also was the first organization in series history to win four straight titles, from 1995-1998 (Gordon in 1995 and 1997-1998; Labonte 1996). The organization upped its series record with five straight titles with Johnson from 2006-2010. Hendrick Motorsports has won 12 of the last 25 NASCAR Cup championships (1995-2019), putting its title-winning prowess during that span at a series-best 48 percent.

“To me, yeah, I think it’s important.  It’s always important,” said Gustafson, addressing the legacy of Rick Hendrick’s empire. “It’s what we do, right?  For me, I just felt like we’ve been right on the cusp for so many years the last three years or so, we needed to get over the edge.  You keep swinging at ’em, keep swinging at ’em, finally hit one.

“Yeah, I think it was time. Certainly, there was some urgency from Mr. Hendrick, from Chevrolet, that we needed to be represented in the championship.”

Elliott politely, if not dispassionately, declined to be drawn into a discussion about the other three title contenders. But first, an observation on Kevin Harvick, who won a series-high nine races in his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford but failed to make the cut around Martinsville’s half-mile bull ring.

“Certainly, I commend them for winning nine races,” said Elliott, driver of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. “I mean, that’s a major feat, for sure. So I think you have to respect that. But I’m not sure it’s for me to say or comment really past that. I’m just really thinking about us, being selfish in a lot of ways, trying to put emphasis on the things that are going to make us go fast. Me ranking Kevin’s season is not one of them.

“I mean, I just think it’s unproductive, right? What good does it do anybody to sit down and rank who they think…I guess if you’re in Vegas, it does those people some good, right? For me, I’m not betting this week in Vegas. I’m not laying any money down on trying to win or not. I don’t care who the favorite is or who the underdog is. I just want to go, have a good run, try to win, achieve our goals.”

The 2016 Cup Rookie of the Year, Chase has extended a family tradition as Cup’s Most Popular Driver in 2018-2019. Additional legacy-building awaits should he join his Hall of Fame father as Cup champ. The Elliotts would join Lee Petty (1954, 1958, 1959) and King Richard (1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979); and Ned Jarrett (1961, 1965) and Dale (1999) as only the third father/son duo to win Cup titles.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s a popular question, right?” said Chase, addressing his family’s championship lineage. “I don’t know because I’ve never done it. I hate to say that, but I just don’t. I think it’s one of those things where you don’t know. I don’t know what it feels like or the emotions of it or what it would bring or wouldn’t bring or whatever because I’ve never achieved that before. To be thinking about those things and not the things that are going to make our car go fast on Sunday is just the wrong _ in my opinion, my approach right now _ is the wrong thing.

“I’m just ‘all eyes.’ My mindset and focus is what is going to make you go fast. That’s what matters on Sunday. That’s going to be the thing that either gives you a chance or doesn’t. The rest of it right now just doesn’t matter. That’s where I’m at.

“I feel like when we’ve been at our best, I feel like we’ve competed with the best in the series. I think if we do the right things, make the right calls, the right adjustments and tweaks on the car from that first (Phoenix) race, there’s no reason why I don’t think we can have a shot.”

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 8 2020
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