A dramatic victory and a long overdue stroke of good fortune at Watkins Glen Sunday may well signal the beginning of the second Elliott Empire.
Chase Elliott awakened the echoes of his father’s Hall of Fame career – as well as the siren atop Gordon Pirkle’s Dawsonville Pool Room – with his first Monster Energy Cup victory in New York. There has been no celebratory siren call for an Elliott Cup series race victory since 2003, Bill Elliott’s 44th and final one.
This siren’s a newer model, rescued from an old police cruiser to replace the model Pirkle took down after Bill retired. It better be in top condition. Because it’s going to be needed a lot more often for many more years to come.
Because surely it will be easier to race now that Elliott has shed at least a ton of unmet expectation with this first victory. Sunday was a great release. And once released, who knows how fast he can go?
To the racing media afterward, Elliott was effusive when talking about the emotional importance of Sunday.
“A lot of relief, a lot of emotion in general. But definitely relief, I would say that would be one way to describe it,” he said.
“I’ve left these races pretty down over the past couple years at times and had some great opportunities. ... I learned a lot about myself the past couple years. I felt like the end of last year I was probably at the top of my game, and felt I was coming into this year with a lot of confidence and knowing that I felt like we could compete with these guys. We haven't had the year that we were hoping for, but the past few weeks have been encouraging and I felt like we've been running more like we did last fall.
“And no reason why we can't do that more often.”
Just 20 when he went full-time to big-time racing in 2016, Chase was marked for instant stardom. He got with an elite race team – Hendrick Motorsports – and was propped up as much-needed personality transplant after the retirement of such high-profile drivers as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart.
But acclaim doesn’t come by proclamation. And the young Elliott struggled to gain traction, accumulating eight second-place finishes and some excruciating near misses. He was passed on the final lap at Dover last year. And led the 2017 Daytona 500 with three laps remaining when he ran out of gas.
Sunday was another gas-mileage race, between himself and Martin Truex. Truex pulled up tight on Elliott’s bumper on the final lap, only to run out of fuel before the finish. Finally, the kid caught a break, for he cut it so close that he had to be pushed into victory lane by teammate Jimmie Johnson after going empty at the finish.
“I was going to do a burnout (in celebration), but I ran out of gas,” Elliott said.
Even up in New York, Elliott knew how to play to his fans back home in Georgia. In his post-race interview one of the first people he credited was Bulldogs football coach Kirby Smart. “This morning I woke up and watched a video. Kirby Smart had a speech about having pressure be a privilege And I had that on repeat in the bus thinking about it. I wanted to make sure that if we were in a position to capitalize that we did.”
It’s a pretty effective pregame speech that can hurtle sports and travel a thousand miles.
Meanwhile, taking it all in from the infield as the team spotter was his father. In the press conference afterward, Chase gave him a typical son’s underwhelmed review: “Yeah, he did fine. We didn’t crash, so that was good.”
For as long as this first win seemed to take, Chase actually found Victory Lane quicker than did his father. Bill’s first victory came during his 124th start. Chase’s landed on his 99th.
For both, their breakthrough came on a road course (Bill’s at Riverside in 1983). “You don't think about these things until kind of after the race, but it's kind of weird,” Bill Elliott told those covering the race.
Once he got that first one, Bill went on a roll. Three wins the next year. Eleven in the classic 1985 season. Thirty-eight of his 44 piling up in the 10 years immediately following that breakthrough. Now, we’ll see if the same kind of flood has been released in the son’s case.
Also savoring Sunday was Dawsonville, the north Georgia mountain town that Bill and his brothers first made famous. They’re the reason there’s a Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in that town. And having witnessed both the father’s and the son’s first victory, Pirkle declared, “I might have been more excited for Chase. I had no doubt he’d get this, I just didn’t know when.”
Pirkle was also among the couple hundred fans who welcomed Chase home when the family’s private jet touched down in Dawsonville Sunday night.
And the community high carried on through into the next day. “Everyone you meet here, they’re in a good mood,” Pirkle said Monday.
Having seen this show once before, Pirkle has high hopes for the nitrous oxide kind of boost this first win might give the younger Elliott. With it, he qualified for the Cup playoffs. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if he won the championship,” Pirkle said.
The “cy-REEN,” as Pirkle pronounces it in his distinctive drawl, might just explode then.
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