As hundreds of NASCAR fans streamed into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in Dawsonville on Wednesday, Atlanta Motor Speedway President Brandon Hutchison introduced a special guest of honor to kick off the racetrack’s 60th anniversary celebration.
“There is no name in Georgia that is synonymous with racing like the Elliott’s,” Hutchinson said. “It all started with (Chase’s) grandfather George Elliot, but has continued on with names like Bill, Dan, Ernie, Casey, and now Chase.”
Chase Elliott, a Dawsonville native, spoke with media members at the event after unveiling a new pace car to be used at Atlanta Motor Speedway next month. Afterward, fans rushed into the building, hoping to get an autograph from NASCAR’s two-time Most Popular Driver.
But for Elliott and the stock-car community, the Cup Series season got off to a somber start Monday at the Daytona 500. On the final lap in a tightly contested race, Ryan Newman’s car was flipped near the finish line, turning into one of the more frightening crashes the sport had seen in more than a decade. Newman spent Tuesday in a Daytona Beach hospital and was released Wednesday afternoon.
Like many of his fellow drivers, Elliot reflected on what the crash meant for the larger sport.
“First off, I’m just glad to see the good news (about Newman) coming from down there, that’s No. 1,” Elliott said. “I think us drivers all take for granted sometimes that it’s still dangerous no matter how much safety advancement has been made. You put a car in the right situation with the right circumstance, and it can be bad. That’s what we saw Monday night. I don’t care how safe you make them, it’s always going to be a dangerous thing.”
Elliott himself crashed earlier on the final lap of NASCAR’s overtime format, eventually finishing 17th, despite winning the first 65-lap stage of the race. Because of his own wreck, the 24-year-old driver had little knowledge of what had happened to Newman’s car until after he had gotten back to his crew.
“I wasn’t really aware,” Elliott said. “I knew there was a lot of medical attention being given to a car, but I didn’t who it was at the time. I kind of caught wind about what was going on, and they said they were being really cautious with the situation, and rightfully so.
“You never know in that kind of spot what’s going on or how bad a guy is hurt. I’m glad everyone did their job, and it seems like everything went as good as it could have. … It’s a big deal to be able (for a driver) to go home the same week after a wreck like that.”
As for Elliott’s own performance Monday, his 17th-place finish marked his second-best finish in the sport’s most coveted competition. The Dawsonville native crashed in both Daytona 500 races over the past two years, making his finish Monday a small positive, amid the disastrous last lap.
“Well as history has it, I typically crash down (at Daytona),” Elliott said. “So, I’ll take those small victories. We’ll take it a stage at a time.”
As for the remainder of the new season, Elliott is poised to rank among the sport’s best once again. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has finished in the top 10 in each of the four full seasons he’s participated, in addition to following in his father, Bill’s, footsteps, by being named NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in each of the past two years. Even with his ever-growing popularity and on-track performance, Elliott recognizes how far he has to go.
“You always have goals, and you always want to do better than you did last year and move forward,” Elliott said. “I think we’ve been really close to being among those top five or six teams. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we’ve been one of those top teams on the outside of that bubble looking in. We just have to assert ourselves in that group. …”
“The goal is just trying to put yourself in a position to make that final four. Winning and winning consistently is going to open a lot of doors as time goes on.”
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