by Julian Spivey
The moment that many NASCAR fans have been waiting nearly three years for finally happened on Sunday afternoon (August 5) at Watkins Glen International when 22-year old Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott broke through to win his first NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series race after coming so close in previous years.
The milestone first win was something most of us figured would’ve happened much sooner in the 2014 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion’s Cup Series career, with the talent he showed at an early age (he was the first rookie to ever win the Xfinity title), taking over great equipment at Hendrick with the team relinquished by the retired Jeff Gordon and having great runs with his eight second place finishes over his first two-and-half full seasons being the fourth most all-time before winning a race.
But, as those second place finishes piled up, and he saw things like Denny Hamlin wrecking him out of a first win at Martinsville in the playoffs last season and his own multiple mistakes while leading races late costing him the young gun, who’s last name being NASCAR royalty surely didn’t help things, started to get hard on himself. Many of us who’ve watched this sport for multiple decades had never seen a driver look so defeated and talk so poorly of himself when not ending up in Victory Lane.
But, we knew the talent was there and the equipment was too (although for much of this season Hendrick Motorsports had noticeably lagged behind competitors) and Elliott’s shining day would come sooner rather than later.
Chase thoroughly dominated the race at Watkins Glen on Sunday, leading 52 of the race’s 90 laps, and winning a stage for his third consecutive race (shockingly the only three stage wins for Hendrick all season) and had some good luck with his closest competitor Kyle Busch, who led 31 laps, having a pit problem that sent him to the back of the pack during the last stage (he remarkably rebounded all the way to third place by the day’s end). But, it still seemed at times toward the final laps of the race on Sunday like Elliott’s late race woes may show up again as defending champion Martin Truex Jr. was dogging him late. When Truex got into the “Bus Stop” poorly on the penultimate lap of the race it seemed like Elliott’s first career win was a cinch but going into turn one on the final lap Chase’s car wheel-hopped and he almost spun his No. 9 Chevrolet out allowing Truex to reach his bumper once again. The luck would be on Chase’s side today, however, as Truex’s No. 78 Toyota would soon run out of gas and Chase would just have enough to take the checkered flag (running out after the finish line).
One of the greatest things about seeing Chase’s first win on Sunday was how excited the crowd was for him. Being the son of 16-time Most Popular Driver winner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott and taking over for all-time NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon it seems Chase had already had a large built-in fan-base, that has no doubt grown over his three seasons due to his own talent and personality. He could easily follow in his father’s footsteps by being named the sport’s Most Popular Driver this year, but he’s always seemed to follow in his father’s footsteps – even more so than some might believe. It’s truly interesting how the beginning of Chase and Bill’s careers have mirrored each other.
Chase’s eight second-place finishes before his first win are the fourth most all-time (the recently passed James Hylton had the most runners-up ever before winning a race with 12), as previously mentioned, but he’s tied with another driver on that list and that driver was his father. Bill also had eight second place finishes in his career before breaking through in the season finale of 1983.
It came somewhat as a surprise to see Chase’s first win come at a road course race at Watkins Glen in New York, but once again he mirrors his father’s first career victory which came at the now defunct Riverside International Raceway road course in California.
The one place where Chase has his father beat is that Chase’s first career win came in his 99th career Cup Series start. But, Bill wasn’t too far behind his boy winning in his 115th career start. Unlike Chase though, Bill’s first win did come in his first full-time season where he ran every race on the circuit, having run seven part-time seasons prior to 1983.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Elliotts continue this “like-father-like-son” aspect with Chase’s career. Just two seasons after Bill’s first career win at the end of 1983 he won a career high 11 races in the 1985 season and within five years was a NASCAR Cup champion. There’s the mile marker Chase. Now go get it.