Bill Elliott

Friday 5: Chase Elliott too busy looking ahead to relish Watkins Glen win

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott is relaxed and comfortable. About an hour after he sat in a Blackhawk helicopter and toured the city from a few thousand feet above, he’s in a Chevrolet Camaro at Fairgrounds Speedway.

It’s not the No. 9 car that took NASCAR’s most popular driver to his first Cup victory a year ago at Watkins Glen International and it won’t go as fast as that car, but this is still his comfort zone. In the fast-moving world that racing is, he slows down as he circles the .596-mile track, which could see NASCAR’s premier series return some day if Speedway Motorsports Inc. and city officials can complete a deal to upgrade the facility.

Elliott tours the banked track at an easy 50 mph — he’ll go about twice as fast later — but it gives him time to reflect upon the journey that leads him back to Watkins Glen for Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). And take him back to when he was known more as Bill Elliott’s son than by his name. Back when he toured the country’s short tracks.

Chase Elliott looks out at Nashville, Tennessee, from a Blackhawk helicopter during a trip to promote Bristol’s night race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I feel like it’s been really everything to me,” Elliott tells NBC Sports of racing at short tracks early in his career, including Fairgrounds Speedway. “I think when anybody gets started in something, you’re going to build habits and you’re going to have tendencies and you’re going to do things from those days forward. … When you’re coming along and learning, you’re going to take that and you’re going to carry that on forever.

“I think that short track racing really made me be the driver that I am. I wish I could do more fo it. I feel that is home for me in a lot of ways. Love to go back and do some more of it somewhere down the road.”

Elliott is the only driver to win the Snowball Derby, the Winchester 400, World Crown 300 and the All American 400, the race held at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Those successes led him on a path that includes the 2014 Xfinity championship and 2016 Cup rookie of the year honors. His April victory at Talladega qualified him for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. But he enters this weekend at Watkins Glen in a drought.

He has failed to score a top-10 finish in his last seven starts. An engine failure ended his race early at Sonoma, crashes at Daytona and Pocono sidelined him and a mechanical issue proved too much to overcome at New Hampshire. A flat tire hindered him at Kentucky and poor pit stops led to a meager showing at Chicagoland Speedway.

“I can’t say I’m hung up on any of them,” Elliott said this week at an appearance promoting the Aug. 17 Bristol Motor Speedway night race. “Time goes on. The good news is you’re in the middle of the season so we’re not to the fall yet, which is when it really matters. I’d rather have a bad stretch now than come October.”

Elliott has been strong in the playoffs each of the past two years. He scored a top-five finish in 45% of the last 20 playoffs races and placed in the top 10 in 70% of those races. Elliott has the same number of top-five finishes (nine) in the past two playoffs combined as Kyle Busch. Elliott has one more top 10 than Busch (13) during that same time. A key difference, though, is that Busch has won five playoff races. Elliott has two wins in those playoff events.

Chase Elliott scored his first Cup career victory last year at Watkins Glen International. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Despite his recent struggles, Elliott will be viewed as among the key drivers this weekend after withstanding Martin Truex Jr.’s charge on the final lap last year at Watkins Glen before Truex ran out of fuel. The victory came after Elliott had finished runner-up eight times in Cup.

Amid the celebrating, he remembers what some told him that day about what would come next.

“Everybody is like the rest of them get easier,” said Elliott, who scored his first career Cup victory in his 99th start. “I really don’t believe that. I know we were able to win a couple more (in 2018), but I really don’t feel like they came any easier. Watkins Glen was definitely a relief. It was nice to get a win. We had been close so many times.”

The memories from last year’s victory are nice but they are just history to Elliott now.

“Obviously it was a special day,” he said, “and everybody likes to talk about that this year because of that and that’s a good thing but really just looking forward.”

The moment to reminisce is over. It’s time to go fast again.

2. Are chances dimming on NASCAR racing in Nashville in 2021?

With NASCAR targeting an April release date for its 2021 schedules and no agreement yet between Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Nashville city officials on a deal to upgrade Fairgrounds Speedway, any NASCAR race there could be a few years off.

Marcus Smith, president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., acknowledged the challenge but said “we’re always up for moving quickly” if a deal is completed. Smith said he feels as the two sides are having “fine conversations.”

Construction continues near Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway has spearheaded SMI’s work with Nashville’s civic leaders, including Nashville’s Fair Commissioners Board, which oversees the track.

“I continue to be very encouraged,” Caldwell told NBC Sports. “We had that great conversation with the Fair Board back in May that has continued. We’ve had subsequent conversations that are very positive and cooperative. It’s a big process.”

A Major League Soccer stadium and mixed-use development are being built near the track and putting all those pieces together also has complicated the process.

“There’s a lot going on on this property, Fairgrounds as a whole, that plays into this,” Caldwell said at the track this week. “I think what you have here (with the track) is a diamond in the rough.”

This has been a project Caldwell and SMI have invested more than a year on already. Why keep going?

“I believe it’s because of the potential,” Caldwell said. “I think Marcus and Bruton (Smith) see that. They remain very interested and understand that sometimes things can take a while especially when it’s a property owned by the public.”

3. It’s all in the attitude

Daniel Suarez didn’t like Bubba Wallace’s one-finger gesture late in last weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway and told Wallace as much afterward.

But Wallace tried to convince Suarez not to be offended by it.

“We got into it in (Turn) 3 and I told him he was No. 1 for a whole lap,” Wallace said. “Ain’t nothing wrong with that. Telling him that he’s No. 1. That’s good.

“I do it to the guys that I like and can race around. If it’s Kyle Busch or (Martin) Truex are coming up to lap us, I’ll give them the finger, hey come on by. It’s funny. We’ll talk about it and laugh at it later. Truex is starting to pick up on it. It’s funny. That’s all it was.”

4. Planning ahead

Jimmie Johnson heads into this weekend’s race with Cliff Daniels making his debut as crew chief. With five races left in the regular season, Daniels’ job is to get Johnson into the playoffs. Johnson is 12 points out of the final playoff spot. While he’s been an engineer for Johnson in the past and was on Johnson’s 2016 championship team, Sunday will be Daniels’ first time making pit calls.

One of the strengths of Hendrick Motorsports, (Chase Elliott’s) team executed almost a flawless race last year,” Daniels said of Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen. “Not only did they have a fast car, they executed phenomenal strategy, Chase’s first Cup win. There are so many notes that we can pull from there that are such a big advantage to us.

“Jimmie’s style … he’s driven so many different types of cars and trucks growing up, he’s so willing and able to adapt to the different scenarios of a race depending on track position or strategically how we’re trying to call the race.

“We will absolutely have a plan that we will try to execute through the race. With that plan, you have to have contingencies of course. … We have so many factors that we can pull from to operate from a position of strength and it’s just going to be on us to go execute throughout the weekend.”

Since stage racing began in 2017, there has been one caution in the final stage in each of the last two races at Watkins Glen.

That likely will play a key role in how Daniels and other crew chiefs determine their pit strategy Sunday. Also, the last three Watkins Glen winners — Chase Elliott in 2018, Martin Truex Jr. in 2017 and Denny Hamlin in 2016 — each won by pitting only twice in the 90-lap race.

The second stage ends at Lap 40. Hamlin made his last stop at Lap 49 in 2016. Truex made his last stop at Lap 53 in 2017. Elliott made his last stop at Lap 55 last  year.

The last time a driver won the Cup race at Watkins Glen with a three-stop strategy was Joey Logano in 2015.

5. Nearly 5 wins in a row

Martin Truex Jr. could have nearly won each of the last five races on a road course or Roval. He won three of those races.

Truex won at Watkins Glen in 2017 and at Sonoma in 2018. He was second last year at Watkins Glen, running out of fuel on the last lap while pursuing Chase Elliott. Truex was in the lead when he was spun by Jimmie Johnson in the final chicane at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Truex won at Sonoma in June.

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Chase Elliott to drive Bill Elliott’s 1981 scheme in Southern 500

Hendrick Motorsports
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Chase Elliott will once again drive a paint scheme used by his father in this year’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver will boast the scheme that Bill Elliott drove in 1981. That year he won his first Cup pole in the spring race at Darlington, the CRC Chemicals Rebel 500.

Via Hendrick Motorsports

Bill drove a No. 9 Ford Thunderbird owned by his father, George Elliott. He placed fourth in the race for his second career top five.

It was the last year Bill drove for his father.

The NASCAR Hall of Famer would go on to earn five Cup wins at Darlington, five poles and a career-best 22 top fives.

While Chase Elliott has one Xfinity Series win at Darlington, he has only one top five in four Cup starts on the “Lady in Black.”

This will be the third time Chase Elliott will have a scheme of his father’s for the Throwback Weekend.

In 2015, his scheme was based on the Coors car Bill Elliott drove in 1985, the year he won the “Winston Million,” an effort capped off by a win in the Southern 500.

In 2017, Chase’s car was based on the scheme Bill had in his first Cup start in 1976 at Rockingham Speedway.

Iconic Melling sponsorship returns with Michael McDowell at Michigan

Front Row Motorsports
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One of the most successful sponsorship names in NASCAR history will return to the sport for this weekend’s FireKeepers Casino 400 NASCAR Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.

Melling Performance, which evolved from the iconic Melling Racing, will be primary sponsor on Michael McDowell’s No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang.

Started by team patriarch Harry Melling in 1982, Melling Racing won the first “Winston Million” with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott in 1985, Elliott set the NASCAR speed record of 212.809 mph at Talladega in 1987 and won the 1988 Winston Cup championship. Elliott would claim 34 of his 44 Cup career wins while driving under the Melling Racing banner.

Michael McDowell’s No. 34 Ford Mustang will be sponsored by Melling Performance in this weekend’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Melling’s son Mark took over Melling Racing in 1999 (after Harry Melling passed away from a heart attack on May 29 that year) and continued to run the team until it closed after the 2002 season. Mark Melling now owns Melling Performance and Melling Engine Parts – which manufactures performance engine parts – and is located in Jackson, Michigan — less than 20 miles away from MIS.

“We’re thrilled to have an opportunity to get involved in NASCAR again,” Mark Melling said in a media release. “Teaming up with Michael and Front Row Motorsports gives us the chance to stay close to our racing roots while promoting our performance engine parts brand.”

McDowell is looking forward to having Melling sponsorship on his car.

“It’s so cool to have Melling on board this weekend,” McDowell said. “They have a long and rich history in the Cup series, so I’m excited that they’re getting involved again.

To have the name ‘Melling’ on our car so close to their home base really means a lot.”

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Monster Energy All-Star Race by the numbers

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When NASCAR holds its annual All-Star Race this weekend, it will mark the 35th edition of the exhibition race that’s called Charlotte Motor Speedway home for all but one year.

In that time, the race has had a lot of different titles, many different formats and a lot of memorable paint schemes (say “Chromalusion” three times fast.)

The race has seen 23 different winners since its inception in 1985 and seven of them will be in Saturday night’s 85 lap main event as drivers compete for $1 million.

Here’s a look at other interesting numbers from the event’s three-and-a-half decades of history.

24 – Times Mark Martin competed in the All-Star Race, the most all-time. He did not miss the race from 1988 – 2013.

14 – Number of top 10s Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned in the All-Star Race, the most all-time. Jimmie Johnson is the active leader with 11.

12 – Number of laps Kyle Busch needs to lead to pass Bill Elliott (267 laps) for most laps led in the All-Star Race.

12 – Cars competed in the first All-Star Race on May 25, 1985. There will be 19 cars in this year’s race.

7 – Drivers who have multiple wins in the All-Star Race (Johnson, 4; Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, 3; Martin, Davey Allison, Terry Labonte and Kevin Harvick, 2)

5 – Poles Bill Elliott earned in the All-Star Race, the most all-time. Kyle Busch is the active leader with three.

4 – Times Sterling Marlin won the Monster Energy Open, the most all-time.

3 – Times Ken Schrader and Marlin finished runner-up in the All-Star Race, tied for the most all-time, without winning. Schrader competed in the race eight times and finished in the top five in six of them.

2 – Runner-up finishes by Brad Keselowski in the All-Star Race. He’s the active leader among drivers in top fives without an ASR win.

1 – Times that Jeff Gordon was sponsored by a dinosaur themed amusement park ride (1997). After winning the race, crew chief Ray Evernham was told not to bring that car back to the track.

Podcast: Chase Elliott on driving the No. 9, early start with Hendrick and more

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The spotlight is shining bright on Chase Elliott this week after he earned his first Cup win of 2019 Sunday at Talladega.

The win came at an ideal time for NASCAR on NBC’s Steve Letarte, who interviewed Elliott this week for his “Letarte on Location” podcast.

The interview took place in Elliott’s hometown of Dawsonville, Georgia, at the famous Dawsonville Pool Room.

They covered a number of topics in the 45-minute episode. Here are a few of them.

Chase Elliott with Bill Elliott in 2002. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

MEMORIES OF BILL ELLIOTT’S RACING CAREER

“Obviously, they’re scattered, right? At that age they’re scattered. When you’re a kid I think you recognize big moments and obviously you can tell when something’s special. I do have a couple memories of Indianapolis when he won the Brickyard (in 2002), because I just remember being absolutely amazed by … when you win there they used to take the cars up on this lift gate thing and I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. I remember that as a kid.

“I remember him blowing a tire at Homestead (in 2003) on the last lap and I think Bobby Labonte beat him. 

“The last one I remember, I remember him winning his last race (at Rockingham in 2003). A couple things about that I remember. He beat Jimmie (Johnson), which was pretty cool. Because Jimmie was getting started … He was obviously killing it. Came in and was having all this success and I remember all the hype around him and then just remember (Bill Elliott) beating him that day. Taking it to the young guy. I thought that was kind of cool. Victory lane was a lot of popcorn sponsor of some sort (Pop-Secret). They had popcorn. It was the car and it was popcorn. … I think I asked someone ‘Can I eat popcorn?’ So I’m sitting in victory lane eating the popcorn.”

HOW JAMES FINCH HELPED HIM JOIN HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS AT 15 YEARS OLD

(Former Cup Series owner James Finch kept tabs on Elliott during his late-model career when he raced at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida)

“I think (Finch) had a car or sponsored a car down there. He loves the Snowball Derby, loves Pensacola and going over there and racing. So was in front of him a lot.

“We’re there and I didn’t know this, but apparently he was taking notice of some of the good runs we had at that point in time. He mentioned something to Mr. (Rick) Hendrick and I think Mr. Hendrick kind of thought about it and felt like he might want to help. He gave dad a call one day and dad and I flew to Charlotte one afternoon after school, sat down. Boss picked us up from the airport personally, drove us over to the shop, toured us around at his facility, sat us down in his office. … He’s like ‘I don’t really know what’s next or … what the right move is, but I want to help. Who knows where this is going to go, but I just want to help. I think we can make something work.’ So that was really where everything really started and nothing was ever really promised, he just wanted to help and he expressed that and really opened the door for everything else after that to transpire.”

DIFFERENCE IN RACING THE No. 24 AND No. 9

“I said it then and I’ll say it now, I honestly didn’t put a lot of thought into (driving the No. 24), the number thing. It didn’t bother me. I don’t think it ever really felt like home. (When I started) racing go karts, I didn’t want to be the 24. I wanted to be the No. 9. … It didn’t feel like home from that standpoint, but it’s not something that concerned me. It doesn’t make you go faster or slower what’s on the side of the car. That was kind of my big thing in my head. It is what it is, let’s just go and try to do good. …

“To me (the No. 9) just feels right. I don’t know what it seems like to you. But like me walking out to the grid to get in the car, that’s my car.”

You can listen to the whole podcast below, including Elliott discussing his friendship with Ryan Blaney.