(WOMR file photo)
Chase Elliott’s first NASCAR Nationwide Series victory at Texas Motor Speedway resonated all the way back to Dawsonville, Ga., where the siren that announced each of his daddy’s 44 Sprint Cup Series victories woke up the echoes of “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” late Friday night…and certainly a few of the neighbors.
“I’ve never been there to experience that (siren salute),” said Chase, who was making his first start on TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval. “It’s always been a tradition in Dawsonville they’ve done for him and it’s really, really cool they kept it going for me. It’s loud…extremely loud. I think the cops came out the last time.”
Elliott turned his sixth career NNS start into his first win via a bold, high-side pass of Cup regular Kevin Harvick through the elbow of the front stretch on Lap 185 of 200 in the 18th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts 300. Once in clean air, Elliott separated himself from a line of Cup stars including his car-owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., en route to a 2.251-second victory over Kyle Busch.
At 18 years, 4 months and 8 days, Elliott is the second-youngest winner in series history, Joey Logano being the youngest winner.
“This is just awesome,” said Chase, dropping the operative adjective during a Victory Lane celebration that included beaming parents Bill and Cindy Elliott. “It was just a phenomenal night. It’s an honor to race with these (Cup) guys. Passing Harvick for the lead and holding off Kyle at the end was really cool.”
Chase is extremely popular among his peers. Before he was even able to exit his JR Motorsports #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro, Chase was greeted along pit road by a series of drivers including five-time Texas NNS winner Harvick, six-time Texas NNS winner Kyle Busch, fellow Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson, and six-time reigning Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.
“I’m about speechless,” said Bill Elliott, the 1988 Cup champion and NASCAR’s runaway Most Popular Driver during the pre-Dale Jr. Era. “To never have been at some of these places like Vegas, California and now Texas and come out and beat the guys he beat…I always felt like Chase could do it; I felt how good the kid really is.”
Junior’s father, seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt,Sr., regularly waged many a Sunday afternoon battle against Chase’s old man during the heyday of NASCAR’s Chevy vs. Ford rivalry. Somewhat ironically, Junior’s JR Motorsports is fielding Chase’s Camaro in conjunction with team-owner Rick Hendrick.
Asked whom Chase resembles, Dale Jr. said, “His daddy. They’re really similar in personality. You had to really work Bill over to get him upset. He was normally just concerned with his car, getting his car faster. Back in the mid-1980’s, when Bill and his brothers just focused on what they were doing, and showed up and whupped everybody, they weren’t arrogant or cocky about it. They just showed up and ran and outran everybody. That’s what he reminds me of.”
Pole-sitter Harvick led the first 87 laps, while Busch made a serious charge from the rear of the 40-car field. Scheduled to start 36th after not posting a qualifying lap Friday afternoon, Busch was forced to start last after missing driver introductions. He charged from 40th to third in just 29 laps and finally overtook Harvick for the lead on Lap 88.
Meanwhile, Elliott hung around in the top-five all race, and showed he was ready to contend with Harvick and Busch, when he took the lead from the latter on Lap 135 and held the point for 20 laps. Earnhardt Jr. then wrestled into the lead and held it for 15 laps.
What proved to be the fifth and final caution from Laps 170-177 for an accident involving Jamie Dick and rookie Chris Buescher set the stage for an apparent Harvick victory. An outstanding pit stop by Harvick’s crew in the first pit box allowed him to move from fourth to first when the race restarted on Lap 178. Despite leading a race-high 101 laps, Harvick’s JR Motorsports #5 Hunt Brothers Pizza Chevy got tight, and faded to fourth once Elliott completed his pass.
“Yeah, that was wild,” said third-place Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Cartwheel Chevrolet. “He was trying to make it work and got an extreme run that one time and got to Harvick’s quarter panel and got him loose inside of him. From there I knew he was probably going to win the race unless we got a caution.”
Elliott confirmed another yellow was his greatest fear as the laps clicked off. “I don’t think you can ever take it for granted just because you’re out front you’re going to get the job done,” said Elliott, whose average winning speed was 137.545 mph. “There’s so many things that can happen and all those things are running through your mind. My main thing was hoping and praying a caution wouldn’t come out. My restarts were pretty terrible and that’s one thing I’ve got to get better on.”
Larson, 21, scored his first NNS victory on March 22 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., where he beat Harvick by 0.342-seconds in race number 5 of this season. Elliott’s victory marked the first back-to-back NNS wins by rookies since Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, now Cup teammates at Team Penske, did so back in 2008.
“Chase got it a lot sooner than I did and that’s awesome,” said Larson, again dropping the operative adjective. “I know there was one point in the race he was in front of me and I said, ’Man, he’s really fast. He’s going to get a win sometime this season.’ I wasn’t expecting him to get it today. I didn’t know it’s been that long and both those guys (Keselowski and Logano) are really good drivers. Hopefully that means me and Chase will be around in the Cup Series for a long time.”
Junior, who won his first NNS race at Texas Motor Speedway in 1998, said Chase has impressed him with his mix of talent and composure. “He’s years ahead of guys normally that age and is learning so fast on the fly,” said Junior, who placed fifth in his #88 Ragu Chevy. “People ask me if I tutor him, but he’s learning faster than you can teach him what’s going on. It’s a lot of fun to be able to work with great people, great drivers and great talent. We’re fortunate to have him.
“I thought he could win out of the gate. The guy is just…nothing gets him too excited and it looks like to me like he doesn’t get into situations that overwhelm him easily. Throw him out there into the middle of all these guys like Kyle and Harvick and he runs right with them and motors along and races hard. It seems like he’s really prepared himself mentally for what he’s doing. He’s not arrogant about what he’s doing or overconfident. He seems to understand what’s happening around him and how to handle it.”
Junior suggested that at his age, 18 years, 4 months and 8 days, there is no way Chase truly can understand what he’s accomplished. “But he’ll never forget it, for sure,” Junior said. “I just wish I could tell Chase how to enjoy the win. He’s happy but you’ll turn around one day and think and realize how precious that moment was…and ‘Man, I really wish I had soaked it all up. Just like winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 vs. 2014, I was two different people that night.”
For the last two weeks, in the Nationwide Series, we have witnessed two of the sport’s inevitable new stars in the persons of Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott! For those who may be asking themselves who is going to be “the heir apparent” to Jeff Gordon’s seat at Hendrick Motorsports, you need to look no further than the offspring of “Awesome Bill From Dawsonville”! You can take that to the bank, sports fans! Chase Elliott, baring any unforeseen circumstances, will be sitting inside the cockpit of the HMS #24 Chevy, when Jeff Gordon bails out of racing!
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!