A driving force: Popular Elliott connects NASCAR’s present with its past

Chase Elliott celebrates his win at Talladega last Sunday. NASCAR via Getty Images

DOVER — This was a feeling that Chase Elliott could get used to.

Fresh off doing celebratory burnouts after recording his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory of the season at Talladega (Alabama) Superspeedway on Sunday, Elliott climbed out of his Chevrolet and was floored by the response roaring down from the grandstands that he received from the passionate crowd.

This was an extremely popular win for Elliott, whose father “Awesome” Bill Elliott is a NASCAR Hall of Famer.

It was just the kind of moment that NASCAR needs more of these days.

“To me the biggest piece of (Sunday) is just how much of a home race it felt like after the race,” said Elliott, whose hometown of Dawsonville, Georgia, is about 100 miles away from Talladega, Alabama. “I honestly can’t describe it to you. After the race was over, just kind of the way it ended, I was in la-la land down there when I was looking for the checkered flag.

“Every time I stood up the crowd stood up. Every time I got fired up, they got fired up. That’s something you can’t ever take for granted. Like I said, people might not always like you. It’s days like (Sunday), those moments, that you’ll cherish and never forget. I certainly won’t. These races are too hard to win to not enjoy those moments.”

The popular triumph might also have marked the beginning of a momentum-spurred roll for Elliott, who enters Sunday’s Gander RV 400 at Dover International Speedway as the most recent winner at the high-banked, one-mile oval known as the Monster Mile.

NASCAR could use some more good news these days — and Elliott might be just the man to deliver it.

The emergence of Elliott, a budding NASCAR superstar at the age of 23, could be one of the keys to rekindling a passion that has been missing in the sport for the past several years as there are routinely swaths of empty seats in the grandstands nowadays as well as diminishing TV ratings.

Elliott is personable, has a strong link to the sport’s past and has proven he has what it takes to win. He has confidence in NASCAR’s future.

He’d love to have another experience similar to Talladega after the checkered flag waves at Dover on Sunday.

“I want people to come and just have a hell of a time at the racetrack,” Elliott said. “At the end of the day you want to build a product that’s exciting and is exciting to watch. I think ultimately if something is exciting to watch, I’ll go watch it.

“That’s the big one, is making a product entertaining. If that’s the case, I think (NASCAR) will be fine.”

Talladega marked the first victory for Elliott since he won at Kansas Speedway last October. The driver has now won four times in the past 25 races.

It wasn’t always such a smooth road for Elliott, who like his father, finished runner-up a total of eight times before breaking through with his first-career Cup Series win at Watkins Glen on Aug. 5 last year. He went on to capture checkered flags at Dover (Oct. 7) and Kansas (Oct. 21).

“I think having such a hard road to get to win number one made me realize that and appreciate it more than I would have if I’d been able to get a win right off the bat,” Elliott said. “Everything kind of runs its course for a reason.

“I’m just trying to ride the rollercoaster and try not to be too up on the ups or too down on the downs. There are so many things out of my control, out of my hands. You just have to kind of roll with it some days. That’s not fun sometimes. Sometimes it is.”

One of those fun days came at Dover last fall when Elliott became the youngest Cup winner in the history at the Monster Mile at 22 years, 10 months and eight days old.

Elliott overcame adversity in the form of a pit road speeding penalty that afternoon but, at the finish, got a taste of redemption after he came up just short of winning at Dover the year before.

In the fall of 2017, Elliott appeared to be on the cusp of earning his first career victory at Dover, but he allowed eventual winner Kyle Busch to pass him with just two laps remaining, leaving him to wonder if he had what it takes to win at NASCAR’s highest level.

In 2018, he found out that he did have what it takes after all – he simply learned as he went along.

“You know he is smart, he is like his dad,” car owner Rick Hendrick said, about his driver. “He is really smart, he knows when to race and he has got unbelievable car control. I’m just very fortunate to have him in our camp.”

Elliott and his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team head to Dover with a strong track record at the Monster Mile.

In six career Cup races at Dover, Elliott has driven to five top-five finishes. His average finish of 4.3 at Dover is his best at any of the tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Alan Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief, said those numbers mean a lot when it comes to navigating the demanding Dover layout.

“I just love Dover, because when you win Dover, you’ve done something,” Gustafson said. “That’s a tough, fast track. There’s no place to hide. There’s no way you can get away with not being on the edge all day — that’s kind of Dover.”

After Elliott became the sixth driver to win through 10 Cup races this season at Talladega, locking up a playoff spot in the process, the pressure has lessened somewhat for the driver who gave Chevrolet its first victory of the season last Sunday.

He said he just hopes he gets to experience more of those days like last Sunday in Talladega. His experience tells him they don’t come around often and to appreciate them when they do.

“It was awesome,” said Elliott, of winning at Talladega. “I’ve never had a crowd just felt like in the palm of your hands is how it felt. You get excited, they get excited. You walk, they don’t say anything. You pump your arms up, they get pumped up. That’s just something that I’ve never really experienced. That’s one of the coolest moments of my racing career.”

There are sure to be plenty more of those moments to come, which would be a good thing for both Elliott and NASCAR.

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