Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – WATKINS GLEN, NY – Chase Elliott’s day had finally come.
The high-fives, shouts of joy and “I told ya so” moments filled NASCAR fandom Sunday from living room, to pool deck to cell phone to “man-caves” around the country as the most popular of the sport’s “favorite sons” – 22-year old Chase Elliott won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
Even he acknowledged hearing the grandstand cheers as he wheeled his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 around the famed Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course during the final lap as he held off reigning Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. to earn that first trophy the hard way – besting the best. What a way to win a race! What a way to win your first race!
After eight runner-up finishes and eight more third-place showings in his brief three-year Cup career to date, there were many times Elliott’s post-race story was of heartbreak, frustration and near miss. Not this time. Sunday was a real show on-track by Elliott and a real show off-track by his huge legions of fans. The combination resulting in one of the sport’s all-time best feel-great moments.
After taking the checkered flag, every driver still on track slowed by Elliott’s Camaro on the cool-down lap to give the young driver a thumbs-up and acknowledge the career achievement. Good friends and fellow 20-something Cup racers such as Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones then waited to congratulate him in person in Victory Lane.
His veteran teammate, mentor and good friend, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson gave Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet a push start after it ran out of gas on track and stalled out during the celebratory cool-down lap. And then best of all, Johnson made a point to find Elliott again on pit road to offer a congratulatory beer and toast this once-in-a-lifetime day.
“To have the respect of your peers is one of the most. … it probably is one of the coolest things about what you do if you can earn that respect because no one understands what you do on the racetrack, not whoever watching, more than your peers, and when they know what you do and they understand you as a racer and respect that, that’s a pretty cool thing,” Elliott said of the support he received from competitors and teammates.
“To have all those guys come up there, that did say something. It was something I’ll never forget.”
Up on the winner’s podium Elliott sprayed his team with champagne– it was his crew chief Alan Gustafson’s birthday. But he was careful to save just enough of that hard-earned most satisfying bubbly for a gulp himself. For a young driver who wears his emotions on his sleeve – i.e. the frustrating runner-up showings – Elliott was clearly ready to seize the festive mood. It seemed to be everything he anticipated it would be.
It certainly looked as if Elliott could get used to the flavor, the scene, the accomplishment, the happiness. And he should. This is likely the first of many more to come.
“I learned a lot about myself the past couple years,” Elliott said. “I’ve learned a lot about racing in general.
“I felt like the end of last year I was probably at the top of my game that I’ve ever been racing as a race car driver in general and felt coming into this year with a lot of confidence and knowing that I felt like we could compete with these guys and haven’t had the year that we were hoping for, but the past few weeks have been encouraging and feel like we’ve been running more like we did last fall, which was really nice, and no reason why we can’t do that more often.”
After patiently fulfilling all his media post-race duties on Sunday, taking all the photos in Victory Lane, signing autographs for all his fans, Elliott and some friends – Blaney was one – took a plane back to Elliott’s small Georgia hometown – Dawsonville, Ga. – and promised to keep the good times going.
Video at the local airport there shows a couple hundred people waiting for Elliott’s plane to land. And he graciously, humbly accepted their congratulations when he emerged.
In true NASCAR historical fashion, this win was popular with the fans and absolutely a family-embraced moment. Elliott’s father, 1988 Cup champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott had been a spotter for him on Sunday at The Glen.
Since Elliott was old enough to ask to race, Bill and wife Cindy supported him in every way. They have been there for all the big celebrations – like the 2014 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship – and they have been there for the pep talks, the close calls as he makes his way in the big leagues.
“I think sometimes you get in this sport, and this is kind of my philosophy. …. you get in this sport and you win too soon, then in your mind it becomes too easy,” Bill Elliott said. “I think it took me. … I know it took me a long time to win my first race in a lot of years because I didn’t run a lot of races first off. So I think I started racing in ’76, and it wasn’t until ’83 until I won my first Cup race. It took me a long time in years wise.
“You learn a lot through that, you learn a lot about yourself,” Bill Elliott said Sunday. “I kind of picked my way through it. I finished second to Richard [Petty] at Rockingham and beat myself up I didn’t win the race there. I finished second to [Neil] Bonnett at Charlotte and I still remember that day that I didn’t win the race.
“But this is a whole different level today. I mean, when you’ve got guys like Kyle [Busch] and [Kevin] Harvick and Truex and all those guys that run like they run, to be able just to even finish second to them, that’s a heck of a day in my opinion.”
And to better those three champions? Well that’s a heck of a day in everyone’s opinion.
“I ran out of gas, so I was coasting around, had a great view to see all the people,” Elliott recalled. “It looked like a sellout. When I was coasting around, people were still fired up. I’m sure some of them weren’t happy, but there were a lot of people that were still pretty damned excited and still in their seats. … well, they were still in their sections. They were standing up. So that’s just a cool thing to see.
“There’s nothing that can recreate that feeling and looking in the stands and seeing people that excited for you for something that you did.”