WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Ninety-nine races and the win count is one.
It’s been a long time coming, but Chase Elliott is now a victor in NASCAR’s top series. The 22-year-old Hendrick Motorsports product turned in a thrilling performance in Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen, holding off reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. for most of the final stage — as many wondered if the veteran would outfox the young driver and pull away with a second straight victory at the road course.
But he didn’t. Elliott won.
And he had his dad, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, on hand guiding — and eventually celebrating with — him the whole way.
“I’m proud of him, proud of the team. They’ve done a good job,” said the elder Elliott, who spotted for Chase through the Bus Stop at WGI. “They’ve worked really hard the last two and a half years to put this together, and Mr. (Rick) Hendrick has done a lot for this organization and done a lot for racing.”
Those two and a half years? They’ve felt like an eternity for some of NASCAR Nation, yearning to see Elliott fulfill his destiny as both the son of a legend and, in his first two Hendrick seasons, the successor to one of NASCAR’s greatest ever in Jeff Gordon.
The start of this year brought a new car number and a new mindset following some offseason guidance from teammate Jimmie Johnson over a few beers during a retreat to Colorado, but the mission remained the same: win.
The shift actually started last fall during the NASCAR Playoffs, seeing Chase put together the best 10-race stretch of his career with four runner-up finishes — after just one through the season’s first 26 contests.
Sunday was a culmination of two-plus years of learning at the Cup level. The win may have been a surprise to most, perhaps even Chase, himself.
“Well, I still think last fall was kind of a defining point in his career,” he said. “I mean, the way he ran the last 10 races last year and the things that kind of went on, and I just … you kind of look at the end of last year, and we were so close to getting a win and getting that last few legs of the (playoffs), and he’s done everything right and there was nothing really I felt like he did wrong. There’s going to be days that circumstances play a part, good, bad or indifferent, and that’s a part of the way the racing gods go, right, wrong or indifferent.”
There were periods where confidence appeared, at least on the outside, to be shaken. In a sport of great quotes through the years, it had to hit a nerve with Chase that his most notable words were some form of “I just hate it for my guys back at the shop,” often after respectable-by-most-accounts top-five finishes.
But a driver with shaken confidence doesn’t hold off one of NASCAR’s winningest drivers over the past few years for more than 30 laps at one of the sport’s most-challenging race tracks. That simply just doesn’t happen.
The lessons he’s learned through the struggles he and his team and organization as a whole have felt are going to pay dividends. It has started to show lately — Sunday was his third consecutive race with a stage win, and he’s now provisionally locked into the playoffs.
The fact that it took 99 races to land in Victory Lane might have been difficult for Chase to wade through while it was happening, but in 20, 30, 40 years he’ll likely point to his early-career challenges as the chisel that carved him into the driver he’s destined to be.
After all, it took Bill 115 races to finally crack through for his first Cup win at Riverside in 1983 … and things turned out pretty well for him.
“Like I said, I think sometimes you get in this sport, and this is kind of my philosophy … you get in this sport and you win too soon, then in your mind it becomes too easy,” Bill said. “I think it took me — I know it took me a long time to win my first race in a lot of years because I didn’t run a lot of races first off. So, I think I started racing in ’76, and it wasn’t until ’83 I won my first Cup race. … You learn a lot through that; you learn a lot about yourself.
“But this is a whole different level today. I mean, when you’ve got guys like Kyle (Busch) and (Kevin) Harvick and (Martin) Truex and all those guys that run like they run, to be able just to even finish second to them, that’s a heck of a day in my opinion.”
But he didn’t finish second Sunday. Chase won.
We’ve felt it coming for a few the past few weeks, but it’s now official.
The Chase Elliott era is upon us, and all signs point to it being awesome.