TALLADEGA — The season’s great poignant moment took place on pit road at Dover two weeks ago. A seven-time champ went over to a mere pup of a racer to offer consolation after an agonizing loss.
Racers don’t do maudlin. The encounter was shrugged off with a punchline. As Jimmie Johnson explained, he wanted to “let him get a few cuss words out before he had to actually pull it together and do a proper interview.”
The disconsolate Chase Elliott had again not won a race. This time, he was in the lead. But he zigged. Others zagged. And … zip.
And, well, cuss word.
NASCARWorld has been waiting 71 races for Elliott to win. That it will happen — and soon — seems as inevitable as a dinner-time telemarketer call.
Then, goes the prevailing sentiment, once he does, others will come in torrents.
There is evidence to support that. The driver with whom Elliott is expected to conduct a long fender-to-fender rivalry, Kyle Larson, didn’t win his first race until his 99th start. Then he won five in 43 races. It took 115 races for a former series champ to earn his first victory. Then he won 14 of the next 58. Guy named Bill Elliott.
William Clyde “Chase” Elliott Jr., 21, is fourth in the playoff standings going into Sunday’s Alabama 500. He has finished second in three of the last four races.
“Our cars have been better, our execution at races has been better and our pits stops have been better,” he said.
But imagine his predicament. He has been anointed as one of the faces of NASCAR’s future. He inherited a car from a Mount Rushmore figure in Jeff Gordon. He drives for the affluent Hendrick Motorsports, which may well have an underground tunnel leading from Concord, N.C., into the basement of the U.S. Mint.
And every week, in so many words, Chase Elliott gets asked, “Why haven’t you won yet?”
The words this week came from the great Steve Hummer of The Atlanta Journal Constitution, who invoked a cinematic classic in his inquiry.
“If you’re not first, you’re last,” Hummer quoted from “Talladega Nights.”
To which Elliott mustered a smile and said, “We’re not to that point of the playoffs yet. Consistency can still carry you forward with where we are.”
Still, he acknowledged, “I don’t know that you have to win to get to (the season finale at) Homestead, but I would say you are going to have to run pretty doggone good.”
In a world where there is no shortage of critics armed with 140 characters of artillery, Elliott remains his worst critic. Sometimes, it’s to his own detriment.
In a news conference at Hendrick not long ago, he addressed that, saying, “It’s my decision. I want to face it. And it’s also my decision to realize if it’s my fault or not. And when it is my fault, I’m going to own up to it. I think us losing that (Dover) race in the closing laps … was my fault and I believe strongly in that.”
It won’t be long, we all know, before that win happens. He’ll zag and everybody zigs the wrong way. And the torrent of wins will begin.
He’ll do it because the cars are better and the pit stops are better, because his team is rich and because he’s got genetics working in his favor. He’ll do it because he’s a damn good racer. And you hope on the day it happens, the kid who keeps kicking himself in the rear reaches back to pat himself on the back a little bit.
Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.