Perhaps nobody in the whole world of sports is hotter right now than Dawsonville’s Chase Elliott. Of course, nobody in that world is doing much of anything presently that involves actual winning and losing. So, attach a coronavirus-shaped asterisk to the claim. Still, go ahead and ride with it, kid.
In normal times we might now be celebrating some hitting streak emanating from Elliott’s favorite team, the Braves. But abnormal is in charge, and it has decreed that auto racing will be the biggest thing going here at spring’s end.
(Coming soon to a deserted track near you — June 7 to be precise — the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway that was postponed as all this madness was descending. It would be swell to turn out in force to greet Atlanta’s hometown driver at his hometown track in the midst of a potentially great season. But don’t try. You’ll be stopped at the edge of the property and told to skedaddle.)
Answering that philosophical question of if a driver wins a race and no one is there to see it, did it happen: Yes.
Thursday night in Charlotte, before a delirious crowd of zero, Elliott won his first race of the season. And just two nights earlier on the same track, he saddled up a truck and won for charity a $100,000 bounty by beating Kyle Busch in a series he has dominated. Busch owned a seven-race truck win streak entering Tuesday.
Elliott has been smack in the middle of everything since racing has returned — minus fans in the stands — nearly two weeks ago. Which is exactly what you want of the driver deemed most popular the last two years. That’s what the sport needs with this stage to itself, it’s most engaging figures actually engaging. Through him, NASCAR seems to be making the best of a muddled situation.
Over the last four Cup races since the return, Elliott has three top four finishes. In his worst finish — a 38th at Darlington — Elliott was running near the front when Kyle Busch misjudged a move while dropping in behind Elliott and sent him into the infield wall. As his wrecked ride was being tended to, Elliott lingered at the edge of the track long enough give Busch a middle-finger salute on his next time around. If only they could have suspended the social distancing for just a moment to allow the two of them to mix it up like drivers of yore. Now, that would attract some eyeballs. Instead, Elliott had to satisfy himself with beating Busch in the truck race.
One big, two-week talking point, Elliott also was involved in the major discussion after the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on Sunday, when a decision to pit following a late-race caution backfired, costing him the chance to win NASCAR’s longest event for the first time.
Through the tough losses and bad breaks, Elliott has demonstrated the kind of inner drive that just might serve him well over a long, confused season. He’s establishing the kind of competitive consistency that works for those who win series championships — he’s currently just off the rear quarterpanel of Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano in the NASCAR Cup points standings.
As Elliott said after Thursday’s race, “It really just keeps you grounded, especially after Sunday. You're just kind of waiting on something to happen. It just kind of keeps you grounded, and the fact that it's never over until it's over, we've been reminded of that quite a lot. That's a lesson I'm never going to forget.”
He's got himself a fast car and a team around him at Hendrick Motorsports that didn’t miss a beat during the coronavirus layoff.
And being just 24, it won’t hurt either that he can run the current condensed schedule without stiffening up as the rest of us would on any simple drive to Macon and back.
By the time they start at Atlanta on July 7, these drivers will have run six races in three weeks, twice the usual work load. Being young and spry just might pay off.
“I feel really good,” Elliott said Thursday night. “I feel like I tried to stay biking and doing things throughout those two months off. Coming back and going back to Darlington where it was hot and then coming into the 600, it kind of just threw us back right to the wolves. I think that was really a good thing just to really get some hot races and some long races in right off the bat and just jump right to it. I feel good. I'm certainly tired. It's been a long week. But I'm going to rest these next couple days and get ready for Bristol (this Sunday).”
Entering the weekend Elliott’s at the front of the metallic wolf pack. That position is tenuous; it can change at 170 mph. But he’s looking like he belongs.
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