Anybody who knows me knows I love NASCAR racing, even though the motorsport tends to piss me off quite often with stupid rule changes and new formats. While 2020 will be a year most of us will like to forget, I will always remember it because Chase Elliott was able to come from behind in the playoffs to win the 2020 NASCAR championship.
I’ve loved racing since I was a little kid for a simple reason: my Dad loved racing. Plus it didn’t hurt that we only lived 20 minutes away from Pocono Speedway. My Dad, brother and I were regulars at Pocono to enjoy NASCAR action and although the three of us didn’t all agree on much, we all rooted for Bill Elliott.
“Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” started racing in NASCAR part-time in the 1970’s and by the early 1980’s, when I became a fan, he moved up to running a full schedule. In 1985 he dominated the motorsport by winning 11 of 28 races, including both races at Pocono Speedway, and becoming the first winner of “The Winston Million” challenge. Yet despite all his success he didn’t win the NASCAR Championship that season. No playoffs back then, the championship was decided by a complicated points formula that used the statistics from all the races on the schedule. “Million Dollar Bill” finished second in the standings behind Darrell Waltrip.
We all felt a championship was going to come, but Bill teased us by finishing 4th in 1986 and then coming in 2nd again in 1987. We started to wonder, will Bill ever win a title? Our prayers were answered in 1988 when Elliott finally won his first NASCAR championship, he won another race at Pocono that year as well. Somewhere in my house I still have my Bill Elliott championship t-shirt from that season. It’s buried around here somewhere, I never had the heart to throw it out even though it’s all faded and doesn’t even come close to fitting me anymore.
We were hoping that would be the first of several titles for Bill Elliott, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. He came close one more time (finishing 2nd in 1992) and won 2 more races at Pocono, but 1988 remained his only championship season. Bill retired from full-time racing in 2003 and was later inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
If you’re not a NASCAR fan you wouldn’t understand, but it is traumatic when your favorite driver retires. In any other sport you root for a team and players come and go all the time. In NASCAR you root for a driver and when he leaves you are lost. My old man was gone when Bill retired, but my brother and I remained united in choosing to support the youngster who took over for Elliott, Kasey Kahne.
Kahne was a good driver who won 18 races in his career, but he never really came close to competing for a championship. It wasn’t the same rooting for a guy whose last name wasn’t Elliott.
Yet my brother, myself and thousands of Bill Elliott fans were excited when Elliott’s youngest son Chase decided to become a professional stock car driver. Chase Elliott began running in the NASCAR Xfinity series (the equivalent to AAA baseball) in 2014 at the age of 18. He obviously inherited a lot from his old man, Chase won the Xfinity championship in his rookie year and finished in 2nd place his sophomore season.
Too talented to be kept in the minors, Chase found a ride in the NASCAR Cup series in 2016 for Rick Hendricks. While it was disheartening to see him driving a Chevy, his Dad was Ford guy, it was great to see an Elliott racing on the top circuit again.
Chase had a good year for a rookie, with 10 top-5 finishes including two 2nd place finishes, but didn’t take any checkered flags. Me and my brother thought for sure that would change 2017, but it didn’t. Elliott did have a better sophomore season, but still couldn’t find victory lane. He came oh so close with five 2nd place finishes, but still was winless.
In 2018 Elliott finished second at Richmond, the eighth second place finish in his career. It was noteworthy because he tied the NASCAR record for most second place finishes without a victory. Who did he tie with? His Dad Bill Elliott, how ironic. Both Bill and Chase hoped he wouldn’t take sole possession of the record and thankfully he didn’t. Later that season he finally broke through with his first career win at Watkins Glen, a road course.
That was kind of funny because Chase wasn’t known as a top road course driver. Neither was Bill, but he also won his first race at a road course. More weird irony. But that view has changed, Chase has won the last four road races on the NASCAR circuit.
Chase made the playoffs a few times before 2020, but never made it to the final race for the championship still in contention. This year he started the playoffs in the 5th position out of 16 drivers and easily survived the cuts to 12 and 8 drivers. The third and final cut to see who would race for the title in the final race gave Chase some trouble. He entered the final cut-off race at Martinsville essentially needing to win in order to advance to the championship race. That wasn’t news I was glad to hear since Chase had never won in Martinsville in 10 attempts, although he did have one 2nd place finish under his belt.
Well my fears were unfounded as Chase won the race in dominating fashion, leading 236 of the 500 laps. It was his 4th victory in 2020, a new career-high in victories in one season for Elliott. Chase, along with Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, survived the cut to the final four and advanced to the championship race at Phoenix.
Chase had never won at Phoenix in 9 starts, but of course he did finish 2nd there once. Joey Logano had won there earlier this season and was the favorite to win. In the end the battle for the title came down to Logano and Elliott. Logano led the 2nd most laps with 125, yet Chase passed him with 40 laps left in the race and held on to win his first (hopefully of many) NASCAR championship. Elliott ended up leading the most laps with 153, most importantly he led the 312th and final lap. Time to celebrate baby!
Minutes after the race was over my brother called and we whooped and hollered together over the phone. I’m pretty sure we haven’t both been so excited over the same thing since Bill won back in 1988. We talked about how weird it was not going to any races this year (we've attended at least one for the last 20 or so years in a row and haven't missed many at Pocono since the 1980's) and speculated maybe we were the jinx! Now I have to get a Chase Elliott championship t-shirt, I just have to make sure I get different one from my brother. We look too much alike the way it is.
The Elliotts are now the third father/son duo in NASCAR history to win championships. The Pettys (Lee and Richard) and the Jarrets (Ned and Dale) are the other ones. At 24 years old, Chase is the 3rd youngest driver to win a title. His Dad didn’t win his until he was 32 years old.
It was a great season for Chase Elliott. There is a lot of similarity between his and his father’s careers. Hopefully championship victories won’t end up being one of them, I hope he can take a few more before he decides to retire. And if he doesn’t that is OK, at least he gave me and his many fans something positive to remember about 2020.