Long: Late to his own party, Chase Elliott enjoyed the ride

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — As the crowd gathered, Bill Elliott, who had been on the backside of Watkins Glen International’s 2.45-mile circuit, appeared.

Crew members, who had celebrated on pit road, soon followed.

Then came the drivers. Friends Ryan Blaney and Bubba Wallace walked over. So did Kyle Busch and Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron.

They all stood around waiting.

Finally, Chase Elliott arrived in Victory Lane.

It was a scene NASCAR and fans had awaited since Elliott’s Cup debut in March 2015, a day heralded with hope and hype for what Bill Elliott’s son could someday do for the sport.

MORE: Chase Elliott receives hero’s welcome in Dawsonville

Signed to a contact by Rick Hendrick at age 15, an Xfinity champion at 18 and the heir to Jeff Gordon’s car at 20, Elliott combined heartbreaking looks with a hot rodder’s drive.

Add that famous surname and how could he not be a superstar in the sport? All that remained was for him to win.

He couldn’t for 98 Cup races — nearly the length of three full seasons. Blaney won during that time. Kyle Larson won. Erik Jones won. Chris Buescher won. Austin Dillon won a Coca-Cola 600 and a Daytona 500.

Elliott fell behind his generational classmates. He came close to winning at times but those results often left him a frustrated or angry eyewitness to someone else’s joy.

Last year proved particularly painful for him.

Busch passed Elliott for the lead coming to the white flag at Dover last October to win. After Elliott parked his car on pit road, he sat there. He removed his helmet and placed his head in his hands. Jimmie Johnson approached but knew there was little to say that would console his teammate. Instead, Johnson helped shield Elliott from the crowd, giving the youngster a moment to vent with salty language.

Four weeks later, Elliott led less than three laps from the scheduled end at Martinsville before he was spun by Denny Hamlin. They engaged in a heated debate afterward that continued at Phoenix a few weeks later when Elliott roughed up Hamlin on the track in retaliation.

Late restarts cost Elliott wins at both Michigan races in 2016, as he piled up second-place finishes. He was a runner-up eight times in those first 98 races, matching what his father did before Bill won his first Cup race — which came on a road course.

Each weekend that Chase Elliott failed to win, the question loomed larger: When would the Hall of Famer’s son win in NASCAR’s premier series?

Elliott felt the pressure, burden and disappointment. Sunday morning, he turned to a football coach for guidance.

As Elliott passed the time before the mid-afternoon start, he pulled up a video of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart from last month’s SEC Media Day. Smart spoke with the calm conviction of a preacher when asked about pressure and expectations.

“I think potential is dormant ability,” said Smart, whose team lost the national championship game in overtime to Alabama in January. “And I think effectiveness is what we get out of our potential. And we talk to our players all of the time, the pressure is really a privilege.

You should feel privilege to have pressure to win games, to have expectations. We can’t run from those things. We know that. If pressure is a privilege, how you manage that and how you embrace that and our coaching staff getting the effectiveness of our players out is what’s important to us.”

Smart’s response resonated with the 22-year-old Elliott.

He watched the video again and again and again.

“He’s talking to kids who are my age, if not younger than me,” Elliott told NBC Sports. “I felt like he was kind of speaking to me. For some reason it really sat with me. Just felt that was something to keep in the back of my mind. It is a privilege to be in those positions, and you’ve got to make the most of them.”

Elliott understood his situation. While Busch clearly had the best car going into the race, Elliott was in that next group. He was closer to a win than he had been most of the season.

This was his chance for a breakthrough.

Elliott didn’t back down against Busch early in the race. When Busch fell out of contention for the win, Elliott dueled reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr., who sought his third consecutive road course victory.

Elliott assumed the lead on Lap 57 when Busch had to pit a second time under caution because of an issue with his team’s fueling left his tank about half empty.

Truex quickly moved to second on the restart but then laid back, saving fuel and waiting to pounce. Elliott also saved fuel. His lead over Truex dwindled, but it was too early for Truex to make a move. He stayed close enough to remain in Elliott’s rearview mirror.

At the behest of crew chief Cole Pearn, Truex pressured Elliott, hoping to run Elliott out of fuel if he couldn’t get around him.

Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson watched from the pit box while he and his team calculated fuel mileage.

“You don’t know how much fuel you’re saving,” said Gustafson, who celebrated his 43rd birthday Sunday. “We’re trying to do the best job we can calculating but you don’t know. It is a cat-and-mouse game. We hadn’t run that far into a run competing against (Truex) all race, so I didn’t know if his car was going to do better than ours or ours was going to do better than his.”

Gustafson said the team projected Elliott wound run out fuel on Lap 89.92 of the 90-lap race — essentially coming to the checkered flag.

Elliott didn’t have to time to ponder fuel because of a mistake on the final lap. He applied too much rear brake entering Turn 1. His car wheel-hopped and drifted wide into the right-hand corner.

“When that happens,” Elliott said of the wheel-hopping, “typically you’re either going to spin out or knock it out of gear and miss the corner. I tried to knock it out of gear, completely blew Turn 1”

Truex closed the gap.

All Truex needed was to get to Elliott’s bumper and in this summer of rock’em-sock’em finishes, Truex would continue the reign he, Busch and Kevin Harvick — the Big 3 — hold over the rest of the field.

Elliott rocketed through the esses and extended his lead on Truex. They both charged through the inner loop, their cars launching off the curbs. After exiting the carousel, Truex ran out of fuel but Elliott didn’t notice immediately.

“I was trying not to pay him much attention,” Elliott said. “I was expecting him to be three or four car (lengths) back coming out of the carousel.”

As Elliott approached the finish line and his first Cup checkered flag, spotter Eddie D’Hondt told him: “That’s one of many!”

Elliott screamed and then headed for his father, who had been spotting near the inner loop.

“I was going to go and absolutely burn it down to the ground in front of him,” Elliott said of the burnout he planned.

He couldn’t. The projection by Gustafson and the team’s engineers were incorrect. Elliott didn’t run out of gas just before the finish. He ran out of gas as he got to the inner loop after he won, going about a half lap beyond what he needed.

Elliott then found himself stranded on the track as fans cheered, his crew rejoiced and Hendrick Motorsports saw the end of a 37-race winless drought.

Johnson, who had a provided a confidant’s understanding to Elliott after that Dover despair, again knew how to help. He drove behind Elliott and pushed his teammate’s car the rest of the way so Elliott could begin his celebration.

“That’s something that I’ll never forget,” Elliott said. “His friendship has meant a lot to me and very appreciative of what he’s done in helping me be a better racer and a better person.”

After the celebration on the frontstretch, Elliott headed to Victory Lane. Instead of announcing his entrance by revving engine, his silent, out-of-gas car slipped in modestly in front of the large crowd that had been waiting.

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