DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Chase Elliott has grown up around crowds. They shadowed his father, just as a young Chase did, when Bill Elliott raced. When it was Chase’s turn to drive, they surrounded him, at first it was more of a curiosity or a chance to see his famous father.
But Chase soon showed that Bill’s talent had been passed down and the crowds grew. They wanted to see what could be the next big thing in NASCAR.
Saturday, in the biggest moment of his career, Chase Elliott suddenly found himself alone.
After a beatin’, bangin’, swervin’, sweatin’, nearly-wreckin’ last-lap duel with Joey Logano, Elliott won Saturday’s Xfinity race.
Seconds later, his engine coughed, gurgled and sputtered. He was out of gas. Elliott’s car coasted to the start/finish line and he parked it. He collected the checkered flag, raised his fist to the cheering crowd and then stood beside his car waiting for a tow truck to push him to victory lane.
Elliott was so far away from pit road, it took a few minutes before a few of his crew reached him. So he stood there alone after having won his first race at Daytona International Speedway.
There was nobody rushing to pat him on the back, pour a drink over his head or hug him in the middle of a TV interview. There wasn’t even a TV interview. He stood there looking around. The crowd stood and looked back. Nobody really seemed quite sure what to do.
“I just tried to enjoy it,’’ Elliott later said of that moment. “I think victory lane often gets rushed through. That’s something that shouldn’t get rushed, in my opinion. That’s something that is hard to get. You should enjoy them because you don’t know if you’re ever going to get another one of them.
“For me, I was standing out there in the middle of the front straightaway at Daytona with a checkered flag in front of me, with a bunch of people in front of me, a speedway with a lot of history all around. I tried to take it in and enjoy that moment.’’
That’s what this weekend has been about.
Elliott’s win came a day after the Camping World Truck Series race, which ended with another notable surname in victory lane.
Johnny Sauter, whose family has deep roots in racing, won the Truck race. It was his second series win at Daytona but first since his father, Jim, died in Oct. 2014. Jim Sauter won an ARCA race at Daytona in 1978.
“First time I won here was pretty special,’’ Johnny Sauter said. “To get a win with him not being here … it’s different.’’
That win came a night after Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his qualifying race – on the 15th anniversary of his father’s death in the Daytona 500. Earnhardt said afterward how it “really warms my heart” to have seen the tributes to his father on social media that day.
“I was daydreaming a little bit,’’ Earnhardt said that day. “I’m guilty of daydreaming a little bit about winning this race tonight because of the day. That was special to me.’’
Saturday was special for Chase Elliott. Bill Elliott was with him in victory lane. So was Chase’s mother, who handed her son a phone with Rick Hendrick calling to congratulate him.
“They were just both excited,’’ Chase Elliott said of his parents. “Dad and I talked before the race just about how aggressive this race gets, guys pushing, just trying to be smart and get to the end is what him and I talked about was most important. Fortunately, (I) got to the end and had a shot.’’
He got to share this special moment … after being alone in front of thousands of people.