TALLADEGA – All things considered, this really is how it should have turned out.
With Talladega Superspeedway marking its 100th race and its 50th anniversary season, things needed to stay in the family. There needed to be a thread of history woven into the storyline.
Thanks, racing gods.
So it was that Chase Elliott maneuvered his way to the GEICO 500 victory lane late Sunday afternoon, parking the car in the very spot where his father Bill celebrated two Talladega victories, where his mom Cindy, a former racing photojournalist, snapped hundreds of frames.
Hang this picture on the wall: Chase Elliott standing on the window ledge of his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports, a spewing bottle of Mountain Dew in one hand, checkered flag in the other.
(And can we crop that 10-foot gecko, an annoying reminder of NASCAR sponsor pandering, out of the photo? Did we see Flo from Progressive holding the ladder when Virginia cut down the nets after the Final Four?)
If Talladega Superspeedway couldn’t have an Earnhardt or an Allison in victory lane for No. 100, it needed to have an Elliott.
“With Dad’s history here, this was very cool,” said Elliott.
Bill Elliott not only won two races here, he earned eight poles, including six in a row. His Coors Melling Thunderbird, crafted in a small garage in a north Georgia hollow with the mechanical brilliance of Bill’s brother Ernie, was the fastest stock car ever. The record books prove it. He qualified for the Talladega pole May 2, 1985, at 212.809 mph. No one’s touched that since.
Now, with the fourth victory of his young NASCAR career, the 23-year-old Elliott becomes the third son of a Talladega winner to join his old man with a trip to victory lane. Davey Allison and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were the others. (Oh, if you ever wanted to get the hair up on Darrell Waltrip’s neck, ask if the 16-years-younger Michael was his son…)
This was a day awash in scintillating racing history and sentimentality for those graying at the temples and creaky in the knees. Even a glance at the scoring pylon, poking from the infield with Mt. Cheaha in the distance, seemed somewhat appropriate symbolic. The top four numbers: 9. 88. 47. 22.
The Elliotts with No. 9. Dale Junior and Dale Jarrett with No. 88. Bobby Allison in No 22. And let the nondescript No. 47 stand for all the nondescript winners who owned this track for one glorious afternoon, never again to visit victory lane – like Bobby Hillin, Lennie Pond, Dick Brooks, Ron Bouchard and the inaugural winner, Richard Brickhouse.
Alas, we have dwelled too much on the past in the previous paragraphs and the previous week.
What may have been further cemented Sunday is that Chase Elliott is the brightest light in NASCAR’s future.
That was never more in evidence than the moment he climbed from his car at the start-finish line to the adulation of the fans.
“The biggest piece of today was how much of a home race it felt like,” he said. “I was blown away. It was an unbelievable experience.”
Added Elliott: “I never had a crowd that it felt like it was in the palm of your hands. It was one of the coolest moments of my racing career.
“Today was something I’ll never forget,” he said.
NASCAR desperately needs to replenish its star power. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in North Carolina on Twitter. Tony Stewart was in anguish over two cars in the same wreck. Jeff Gordon was on TV. Carl Edwards is heaven-knows-where. Many current successful drivers are lacking in fan appeal, either too bland or too brash.
Elliott was voted the sport’s Most Popular Driver last year, “but you don’t know if it will always be that way.” (The vote here says, yes, it will.) Bill Elliott won the award 16 times, then ownership was essentially handed over to Dale Junior, who has passed the baton to Chase.
When I asked Elliott if his father was at Talladega on Sunday, the answer was no.
“My mom and grandmother were here, which was really cool,” he said. “My mom missed all the wins last year and my dad was at two. She got to one-up him today.”
Bill Elliott, an icon in motorsports history, was racing this weekend at Road Atlanta.
At age 63 – and driving car No. 9 – Bill Elliott won.
Thanks, racing gods.
Veteran sports columnist Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.