Chase Elliott shuffled into the infield media center at Dover International Speedway and plopped down into his chair at the front of the room. He sank. Then, reluctantly, he grabbed the awaiting microphone, took a deep exhale, and prepared to say his piece.
Only minutes before this scene played out, one far more dramatic had taken place. Elliott, one of NASCAR’s best young drivers (he’s just old enough to have a beer), had a chance to win his first Cup Series race, and in the playoffs at that, and at the same track where his Hall of Fame father won four times ... and it all slipped away two laps from the finish.
Two stinking laps. Elliott led for 138 of them, more than any other driver, and yet those last two are the ones he’ll replay in his mind over and over again. He’ll replay Kyle Busch, who ended up winning the race, riding up behind him for the last 10, 20 laps. He’ll replay the moment he got caught up in lap traffic and Busch’s No. 18 car passed him, sliding up over the top when normally that’s the safe place to be. And he’ll certainly replay the postrace celebrations – Busch’s signature bow with the checkered flag, the champagne spraying in Victory Lane – of which he wasn’t a part.
“Such a bummer,” Elliott said. “Such a disappointment for my team.”
Elliott’s teammate at Hendrick, Jimmie Johnson, tried to console him after the race, but what do you say to a young driver who dominates all afternoon and sees his forever goal in front of him, only to lose it at the last possible minute?
“I knew I couldn’t say anything to make it better, but I felt like just standing there was maybe helpful,” Johnson said. “Maybe let him get a few cuss words out before he had to actually pull it together and do a proper interview.”
Which brings us back to the media center, and that dreaded “proper interview.” It lasted three questions, just two minutes. Elliott, to his credit, answered the questions like a professional. He was short, as he had a right to be, and tussled with the scruff on his face in frustration, but he was thoughtful, too, and took the blame all on his shoulders.
“I should have done something different,” Elliott said. “That’s just on me, and (Kyle Busch) did a better job than I did. At the end of the day that’s what it comes down to.”
The sadness in his voice matched the sadness apparent in pit road, where his crew languished in the postrace chaos. Some sat with their heads in their hands. Others just stared blankly into space, entertaining any what-ifs and could-have-beens you can imagine. This is the team’s third runner-up finish this year and second in three races (although technically the one at Chicagoland two weeks ago was encumbered).
When the questions were done, Elliott picked himself up and starting heading for the exit. You could hear a few workers in the back of the room murmuring: “I feel so bad. Oh my gosh, I thought he was going to do it.”
But he did not, and now the wait for his first ever Cup Series win continues. Then Elliott slid on his sunglasses, bowed his head, and walked out the door – all the while those last two laps played on repeat on the TV behind him.