Nationwide Win a Coming-of-Age for Elliott
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Before Chase Elliott swooped past those veterans twice his age, before he sent plumes of smoke into the sky in a celebratory burnout and before he seized the checkered flag and drove backward down the track in celebration of his victory at Texas Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a premonition.
He watched Elliott qualify sixth in his No. 9 Chevrolet, exit the car, hop a fence and walk back to his hauler totally unencumbered.
"Nobody asked for his autograph," Earnhardt Jr. recalled following Elliott's breakthrough win in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race Friday night. "I thought to myself, 'He's going to win one of these days. It ain't going to be long until he's just swarmed with attention.' "
The swarm came hours later. Elliott found a line of crew members from multiple teams ready to slap hands as he drove to Victory Lane following his sixth career Nationwide Series start, and fans pressed tight against the black gate encircling the celebration to get a glimpse of Elliott lifting a trophy over his head as fireworks exploded into the night sky.
It was a coming-of-age moment for the 18-year-old high school senior, who earlier this year wrote his own tardy note for school the Monday after Earnhardt Jr. won the rain-delayed Daytona 500. On Tuesday, Elliott beat not only Junior (his boss), but NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stalwarts such as Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch for his first Nationwide Series win.
It was that on-track showing that was more indicative of Elliott's maturity than the hint of a 5 o'clock shadow across his cheeks. He used a power move after late pit stops to clinch it, chasing down JR Motorsports teammate Harvick, first pressuring the veteran and then hammering it past him. Once clear, it was never in doubt.
"I knew our car would be a little faster if I could ever get around him," Elliott said. "I kept trying to take a different line to get around him and finally predicted what he was going to do."
Harvick, who started on the Coors Light Pole, led 101 of 200 laps, including the first 87. By the end of the night, after pit-road adjustments and with a cooler track, there was no doubt who had the best car.
"Chase was in a league of his own," Kyle Busch said.
Busch would know. Earlier in the race, with his No. 54 Toyota leading, Elliott flew up into Busch's rearview mirrored. Two circuits later on Lap 122, he crossed him over to take the lead for the first time on the evening, the pass perhaps as symbolic as it was strategic.
Afterward, the triumphant whooping in Victory Lane moments after climbing out of his car was the only time the ultra-focused Elliott raised his voice. He's a driver who rarely, if ever, loses control of his emotions, something Dale Jr. long remembers from growing up watching Bill Elliott.
"He's just like his daddy," Earnhardt Jr. said of Chase. "You had to really run Bill over to get him upset."
"Awesome Bill" was at the track Friday night, preferring to stay in the background both during the race -- he watched from the truck -- and the Victory Lane celebration. The 1988 premier series champion avoided the cameras, only posing for pictures when asked and after he was sure Chase had his time in the spotlight.
He stood perhaps 20 feet away, basking in the glow of both the victory and the flames flickering from the staging overhead, mired in his own private celebration as he replayed Chase's racing development through his mind.
"I told Chase to go at it and have fun -- if you don't want to (race), go do something else," the elder Elliott said of nurturing Chase's decision to get into racing early. "You won't hurt my feelings. That's the philosophy he's tried to use his whole career. And as he went onthat helped him understand. Just given the opportunity, I knew the kid could do it."
The opportunity came in the offseason when Elliott -- one of the most highly regarded prospects in NASCAR -- found himself needing both a ride and a sponsor. JR Motorsports came first, and NAPA followed.
True to his mature form, Elliott quickly thanked his sponsor and team in the post-race press conference before mixing in words like "special" and "awesome" to describe his emotions.
"Being calm and not getting carried away, it's just how I've grown up," Elliott said. "I don't know if it's the right or wrong way to be, but it's who I am."
And perhaps he doesn't quite yet understand the gravitas of this Texas-sized victory, but his team owner -- who has had plenty of memorable victories himself -- knows that comes in time.
"I think at this age, you don't really understand what you've done, "Earnhardt Jr. said. "But I know he'll never forget it."