DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The pride on Bill Elliott's face was unmistakable as he emerged from a small radio interview room Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway. An hour earlier, his 20-year old son, Chase Elliott, had furthered the family's storied name by adding his own remarkable chapter to Daytona 500 record books by winning the pole for Sunday's race.
And his dad was visibly moved.
The great event's youngest pole-winner ever – by three years – Chase Elliott had just completed a press conference where he was as mindful of realistic expectations for a young rookie in his first Daytona 500 as he was humbled by the historic achievement.
Chase gets his balanced disposition honestly. His father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, was never one to give in to the hyperbole through an amazing five-decade NASCAR career that included a Cup championship and 44 wins – including two in the Daytona 500 (1985 and 1987).
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However, this Sunday afternoon, Bill Elliott was wearing the smile of an extremely proud dad – and willing to share the experience with a couple reporters. As calm and calculating as Bill was during his own racing career, he was almost effusive in the pride and love he felt for his son this day.
"I try to tell him, 'Enjoy it,'’" Bill Elliott said, grinning. "Because the problem is, then the years turn into 20 to 30 and to 40, and you wonder where it all went."
Bill Elliott and his wife, Cindy, had watched their only son's qualifying laps around the sport's most famous speedway while managing both high hope and tempered expectation. As usual, they stood away from the spotlight, only emerging when Chase had sealed this very big deal.
"We were in the shadows – where we usually are – just watching and taking it all in, then we walked onto pit road to celebrate with him," Cindy Elliott said while waiting for her son to complete his media obligations Sunday afternoon. "I guess you could say we just had a big Valentine's gift. We're so excited for him. It's a long week so we're pacing; one day at a time."
Some of the reserve and realism that characterized Bill's great career is readily evident in his son as well.
While answering questions from the media moments earlier, Chase Elliott came off as a much wiser, more sensible person than someone 20 years old should be.
He is noticeably measured, and takes time to think about the questions – and he got a flurry of them Sunday afternoon – before answering.
And quite often, as he typically does, Chase delivered an alternate perspective from what people might have anticipated.
He is simultaneously reverent of Gordon's career achievements and yet realistic about the learning curve he, himself, will endure not only this season, but for several to come.
And his father's steady guidance and support is both evident and invaluable.
"For some reason, he just thinks this is where he wants to be, and that's it," Bill Elliott said. "I've told him numerous times, 'You know, if this isn't what you really want to do, you need to find something else. It will chew you up and spit you out.' He says, 'Nope, that's what I want to do.' Since he was a little kid it was, 'Yep, I want to drive a race car.'
"Since he was little – four or five years old – he always had his Matchbox cars and run them around on these little tracks, totally focused. He'd sit on the pit box on Sundays and tell [then Elliott's team owner] Ray [Evernham] all this stuff."
The Elliotts have been such staunch supporters of their son, and subsequently his biggest cheerleaders – whether Chase was winning the prestigious Snowball Derby late model race as a 16-year old or the 2014 XFINITY Series title as an 18-year old in his first full year of big-time NASCAR competition.
They have supported, but they have never pushed.
“Watching Chase grow up and watching him race, he was pretty good when we raced go-karts on road courses," Bill Elliott recalled. "Then when he moved up and we ran Bandaleros and Legends and he did well with that. But he really excelled when he got in a late model car. That just seemed to be when the light switch went on. And thereafter, no matter what he got in, the heavier, the bigger the car, the better he got.
"I'm very proud today. No matter what today brings and Thursday [Can-Am Duels] brings and next Sunday brings is another piece of the puzzle. … You just have to take Daytona and do the best you can to get through it. You just never know."