By Jessica Ruffin
3 Minute Read
LAS VEGAS – It was hardly a surprise to hear Chase Elliott’s name called as the 2018 Most Popular Driver during the NASCAR Champion’s Week banquet in Las Vegas.
Elliott’s fellow drivers joked about it throughout the week, many of them already predicting Elliott to win it long before his name was called. Kyle Busch even clowned with Elliott during his media obligations offstage.
“When all your peers answer the interview as if you’ve already won, it kind of makes it odd,” Elliott said with a smile. “… It’s a great honor to have.”
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The award has been in the families of the Elliotts and Earnhardts for 33 years in total, with the younger Elliott claiming his first title on Thursday evening. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. – who won the award for 15 straight seasons before his retirement at the end of the season — announced Elliott as the winner, it was almost a passing of the torch.
From one beloved racing family back to another.
“So cool though that it’s stayed between Elliott and Earnhardt for so long,” Elliott said on stage after accepting the award.
“I am glad though that you quit a year before you broke Dad’s record,” he then joked with Junior, referencing his father Bill Elliott’s 16 MPD wins. “… I’m pretty happy about that. We got it back in the right name.”
The popularity of the Elliotts and Earnhardts is well known and as the only active driver now, Chase Elliott leads it. The plethora of No. 9 T-shirts and hats seen at race tracks across the country are unmistakable. The crowd’s roar that comes with Elliott takes the lead in a race is similar to … well, Junior.
Off the race track, the two families aren’t the flashy type. But they do have great respect for one another and the sport.
Maybe that’s what fans love about them.
“I think really through the whole process, probably the coolest thing I learned was the year that Dale (Earnhardt Sr.) died and Dad took his name out of the hat to even win the award that year,” Elliott recalled of his father. “Obviously Dale won it and …. Junior and I were talking a second ago about how he accepted that award on behalf of his father that year. So, he actually has accepted 16, much like my father. So, just very cool. You learn a lot through these experiences.
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“But I thought that really said more than anything about why he’s won it so many years when he didn’t even enter it that season to make sure that Dale won it. And rightfully so.”
Elliott’s crowning on Thursday is likely the first of many MPD awards for the 23-year-old driver, as his career with Hendrick Motorsports is just beginning. He broke through for his first Monster Energy Series win this season at Watkins Glen International, following it up with a pair of playoff wins after that at Dover International Speedway and Kansas Speedway.
For now though, he’ll enjoy this award –and the fans’ support that allowed him to earn it.
“At the end of the day, the votes are awesome, people taking their time to pull for us throughout the year,” Elliott said. “I feel like the biggest thing that I noticed that was really recognizable is just how fired up people about us, wanting my team to do good this year … and seeing all the hats and T-shirts and things. Those are the things that really hit home with me. Seeing it at track and seeing it live and in person. …
“You try to be you, I guess, all the time. All of the history of it and Dale’s success and Dad’s success. Having it between Elliott and Earnhardt for I don’t know how many years now. It’s kind of crazy.
“So, to watch that come full circle and to be able to kind of carry that legacy at least for this year is special and I’ll certainly enjoy it.”