Dale Jr. on Elliott's win: 'Enjoy this moment'
April 09, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live
FORT WORTH, Texas – Less than 48 hours after winning his first NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Texas Motor Speedway -- having schooled the likes of Sprint Cup Series regulars Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth -- 18-year-old Chase Elliott was back in school himself, his first period high school class in Georgia.
His breakthrough victory Saturday night in only his sixth start, however, proves Elliott is steadily mastering the learning curve in racing, too. And he's fortunate to be surrounded by two very special teachers in his father, 1988 Cup champ and current NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Bill Elliott, and his team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., a two-time Daytona 500 winner who also knows a bit about being the son of a racing legend.
After Elliott pulled his No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet into Victory Lane, his beaming father leaned in the window to share the moment.
"I just said, 'Man you've done a heckuva job,' " Bill Elliott recounted, still grinning ear-to-ear.
As Elliott hoisted his trophy, glad-handed sponsors and posed for photo after photo against a pyrotechnic background of fireworks and shooting flames, his mentors made a point to stand out of the spotlight. Bill Elliott and Earnhardt were happily content to be spectators watching the 18-year-old learn the victory routine that he will surely be repeating over the years.
A couple of times Elliott even had to shout over and cajole his father to join him for a photograph. It was hard to decide who wore the bigger smile.
"Now I know what people feel like when they're watching a race, because when you're racing in the car, you don't think through things," said Bill Elliott, who confessed to being so nervous he watched the race from the JR Motorsports team transporter.
"You're concentrating so much on your line, the race track, traffic all the stuff going on.
"The funny thing about it, though, all the times I watched Chase and as he continued on in go-karts, Legends cars, ... when he stepped into a late model car it's like the light switch turned on.
"It took him a little bit to figure out what he wanted. But to turn around and watch him and see all that experience he's done, it's paid off tonight."
It was the second time (including Elliott's 2013 Camping World Truck Series win) that father and son had been together in a primetime NASCAR Victory Lane since Bill Elliott's 2003 Sprint Cup Series win in Rockingham, N.C., when Chase was just 7 years old.
Even then, Bill Elliott said he realized his son was interested in cars, but he said he consciously tried to take the pressure off any large footsteps to follow.
"I remember one guy that was working on the go-kart with him came up and said, 'He's not running the right lane, he's not doing this and he's not doing that,' and I told him, 'Stop, he's only 9 years old,' " Elliott recalled.
"I told him, 'Let him have fun. Don't worry about that.'
"I always told Chase go at it and have fun. If you don't want to do it, go do something else. You won't hurt my feelings. That's the philosophy he's tried to use his whole career. And as he went on that helped him understand.
"Just given the opportunity, I knew the kid could do it."
Despite the pedigree and talent, doors didn't just swing open for the younger Elliott.
He has had some growing pains, including an early taste of controversy when he collected his first NASCAR national series win in the Camping World Truck Series after last-lap contact with Ty Dillon.
Even five months ago, Elliott was unsure if he'd have a full-time NASCAR job this year. But NAPA came on board six weeks before the season started and Earnhardt was able to field a Nationwide Series car -- the No. 9 in homage to Bill Elliott -- for the highly touted rookie already in the Hendrick Motorsports driver development lineage.
Even that unintentionally tough lesson of uncertainty was something Bill Elliott considers helpful in the big picture. Enduring and prevailing in the tough times, he figures, will help his son enjoy and appreciate nights like Saturday even more.
"The hardest thing about this sport is whatever happens tonight, it's over," Bill Elliott said. "There's going to be ups and downs and you have to experience it, but I do hope I taught him enough over the last number of years with all the ups and downs we've been through in the late models and all the racing we've done, that it's a part of the sport.
"I think that all builds character. You're going to have tough races, controversial races, but it's no different than any other driver has had to go through at one point or another.
"I gave him an example. I was leading a race in 1990 (at Atlanta) and on my last pit stop my right rear tire guy (Mike Rich) gets killed (in a pit road incident with Ricky Rudd).
"I lived with that all winter long. That was the hardest winter of my life. That puts things in perspective. Just to lose a race or wreck a car ... having one of your friends get killed on pit road, that's hard. But it's about being able to put things in perspective.
"This is a roller coaster sport. And you look at it and there will be ups and downs ... this will give him good confidence and put him where he needs to be. ... This has come a lot faster than I ever dreamed to be where he's at right now."
As he spoke Bill Elliott was constantly looking over at his shoulder, genuinely seeming to enjoy the moment as much as his son and exchanging backslaps and smiling head-shakes with Earnhardt.
At one point Saturday night, while Elliott was trading out sponsor's caps for a series of photographs Earnhardt offered to hold onto his driver's cowboy hat -- a gift the track traditionally gives all its winners. As he looked at the hat -- Earnhardt probably remembered that Texas Motor Speedway was the first Victory Lane he ever celebrated in, too -- winning his first Nationwide Series race there in 1998 and his first Sprint Cup race there as well in 2000.
As Earnhardt held the hat, he reminded the team's public relations representative to get a Sharpie and write down the date and place of this win on the inside brim.
He knew how special this night will forever be, explaining to reporters a little later, "I just wish that I could tell Chase how to enjoy the win."
"He's enjoying it and he's happy, but you'll turn around one day and think, you don't realize how precious that moment was and you'll think, 'I wish I would have soaked it all up.' " Earnhardt said.
"Just like winning the Daytona 500 (for me) in 2004 versus 2014. That was two different people. I knew this year when we won it, you gotta soak it up because you don't know when it it will happen again.
"He's got a lot of races that he will have an opportunity to win in the future and he's going to have a ton of time to celebrate and enjoy himself.
"Enjoy this moment and relive it as much as you can because the rest will be fun, but they won't be like this one."