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New Champ Elliott Is Popular And Talented

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 9 2020

Chase Elliott produces some championship smoke at Phoenix. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. – When Chase Elliott bussed tables and washed dishes as a young teenager at the Dawsonville Pool Room the walls surrounding him chronicled his father’s racing achievements via framed newspaper clippings and photographs hanging on the small restaurant’s walls.

The young Elliott dreamed of joining his NASCAR Hall of Fame father, Bill Elliott, atop stock car racing’s pinnacle as a NASCAR Cup champion. On Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, the 24-year-old Elliott’s dream became reality, making him the third youngest driver to earn the coveted title.

“It’s unbelievable!” Elliott said after his victory at the one-mile track. “I know I haven’t let it sink in yet. I’m waiting on it to hit me and (then) I’m going to break down here and look like a fool in a minute. I know it’s coming, so I really hope I get done with all this media before it happens.”

 Elliott, the series’ first Most Popular Driver to earn the Cup title since his father accomplished the feat in 1988, emerged the 2020 champion in dramatic fashion. First, he had to win at Martinsville Speedway the previous weekend just to earn a spot in the Championship Four. Then, after his Chevrolet failed pre-race inspection twice at Phoenix, he had to start the race at the rear of the field. The soft-spoken Elliott later said it wasn’t the starting position that concerned him, but rather his pit stall selection. His team possessed the first pit box and he didn’t want to lose it.

Once I realized we didn’t, I’m like, Ok, if we have our car good and our balance is right, who cares if you start at the back for the race?” said Elliott, who ended the season with five victories in addition to his All-Star win. “Three-hundred and twelve laps – that’s no excuse to not get the job done if your car is good.”

Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson exuded calmness on their radio channel throughout the race, even though Gustafson admitted after the event that he was concerned after realizing “how hard it was going to be to pass.” The final green-flag pit stops when title contender Joey Logano came out ahead of them also concerned him. However, the maturity with which Elliott approached the pressure-packed season finale was typical of the way he has raced since he was 14 years old. 

Chase is not a normal 24-year-old person, that’s for sure,” Gustafson said after earning his first championship as a crew chief. “He’s got the physical attributes and skill sets of a 24-year-old, but he’s got the intelligence and the experience of someone much older and wiser, so he acts like he’s a 35-year-old in his prime.”

  Statistics mean nothing to the young Elliott. He describes them as being “for losers.” However, whether facts are defined as statistics or history repeating itself, they cannot be ignored. 

  • Elliott’s achievement makes the Elliotts the third father-son combination to earn Cup championships. Lee and Richard Petty were the first with Ned and Dale Jarrett the second. 
  • This year he joined his father as the only two competitors to win a NASCAR All-Star race not held at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Chase’s came in July at Bristol, while Bill’s was in 1986 at Atlanta.
  • In 1988 when Bill won his championship the Dodgers captured the World Series and the Lakers the NBA title. This year, the Dodgers claimed the World Series and the Lakers earned the NBA championship.
  • Chase becomes the third driver from the state of Georgia to win the Cup championship with the other two being his father and NASCAR Hall of Fame member Tim Flock. 
  • Chase’s first full-time season in Cup was 2016. That’s the same year Jimmie Johnson won his seventh and final Cup championship. That year, Johnson’s car failed pre-race inspection and he had to start at the rear of the field, just as Elliott did Sunday. 
  • The young Elliott provided Hendrick Motorsports with its record 13th championship in its first appearance in the Championship Four since 2016. The organization has now won half of the last 26 Cup championships. 

Perhaps Chase’s mother, Cindy, described it best on NBC’s telecast after the race, “I felt peace all week. I knew this would be our fairy tale ending.” 

For Bill and Cindy, it’s been a long road that Bill admitted after the event never would have occurred had it not been for Rick Hendrick. In Chase’s Late Model days, Cindy accompanied Chase to the track, overseeing the team’s needs while Bill continued his Cup career with Evernham Motorsports. Then one day, Hendrick decided to sign Chase to a contract. That was 10 years ago.

  “I won’t name any names at our company, but I think a lot of people thought I was nuts,” Hendrick said about signing Elliott when he was 14 years old.

        “Actually James Finch told me, ‘Have you seen Chase Elliott drive?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Man, he’s whipping all these guys on dirt.’ So I started getting some videos, and then I called Bill, and they came down and we talked.

“I just watched him in those Late Models and then actually saw one of the races he was racing Kyle Busch. Just the way Bill raised him and what a polished young guy he was and had a lot of talent, I thought, man, he’s just 14 years old so (I) sure want to take a chance (on him) if we can.”

On Sunday, one could say Johnson literally passed the torch to Elliott, who celebrates his 25th birthday on Nov. 28. Elliott’s first championship came in Johnson’s final race as a full-time NASCAR competitor. The two met on the frontstretch after Johnson had driven a reverse lap around the track to wave at the fans and gave each other a high-five. It was a moment similar to the one that occurred in 2003 when Elliott’s dad won the season finale at Homestead and Matt Kenseth claimed the championship. 

“There was a photo that sat around (my parents’ office for years) of them high-fiving in their cars as they were driving by,” Elliott said. “I saw Jimmie kind of taking his victory lap up there and that picture flashed in my head. I was like, damn, that would be super, super cool to recreate that moment. That was really what sparked that and what made me want to go do it.

“I really hope somebody took that picture because that was really cool.”

            Chase Elliott is a realist about racing, just as is his father. He grew up around the sport in the infield, on pit road and in victory lane. During his childhood years he always wore a headset so he could listen to his father’s radio communications with his team. He understands it’s a sport comprised only of peaks and valleys where nothing can be taken for granted. He never makes excuses and takes the blame if he believes his performance has fallen short. Some have said he’s too hard on himself, but that’s the Elliott way. His honesty is refreshing and his disbelief in his championship achievement genuine. He recognizes racing as being “entertainment from the outside looking in, but what makes my living is performing or not.”

“I think me performing at a high level is going to take me a lot further in life than being the face of something,” Elliott said. “My focus is on doing my job, and that’s to drive a car to its full potential every week as long as I’m hired to do so. 

 “When I’m dead and gone and my dad is dead and gone, he and I will share a championship with the last name Elliott forever. I don’t think it gets any cooler than that.”

(Editor’s Note: Deb Williams is in her fourth decade of covering motorsports. The former editor of NASCAR Winston Cup Scene and managing editor of GT Motorsports has also covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. The 1990 and 1996 National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year has authored five books and hosts the podcast “Racing Now and Then.”)

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 9 2020
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