ThatsRacin

With Dale Jr. gone, NASCAR needs a new superstar. Does Chase Elliott have next?

Chase Elliott (left) collected his first Cup Series win after eight second-place finishes. Compared to Bill Elliott (right) that’s ... exactly the same. And both first wins came at road courses.
Chase Elliott (left) collected his first Cup Series win after eight second-place finishes. Compared to Bill Elliott (right) that’s ... exactly the same. And both first wins came at road courses. AP

If only you could hear that si-reen sound.

Down in tiny Dawsonville, Ga., home to fewer than 3,000 but one of racing’s most well-liked families, the townsfolk have been waitin’.

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Atop the local pool hall, there sits an old police siren. Whenever the town’s favorite son, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, would win a race, it rang. It cried out, lit up the block. And everyone knew another checkered flag was coming back home to Georgia.

But for many years, the bell fell silent. Bill won his final NASCAR event in 2003, and for the next decade, that siren did not sound. The magic, of racing and a small town and tradition, was fading.

That was, until the town’s favorite son had a child of his own: Chase. Since 2013, when the stringy 17-year-old won his first Camping World Truck Series event, the siren has been un-retired. The chimes have been less frequent, certainly. Even as Chase rose through the NASCAR ranks, capturing an Xfinity Series title along the way, there was still this waiting — for something ... bigger. Something ... well, something more like his pops.

And as NASCAR experienced an exodus of stars — Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and of course Dale Earnhardt Jr. — the pressure on young Elliott only compounded. Dawsonville wanted to ring its siren, sure; but what of all Bill’s old fans? What of the sport’s marketing executives (not that they should be paramount in any driver’s mind) constantly pushing “young guns”? Heck, what of Elliott himself?

Didn’t he want to prove his own worth, that he’s more than a historic surname?

No doubt. Take a listen back: one of the very first things Elliott said Sunday after his first Cup Series win, one where he outlasted the reigning Cup Series champion in Martin Truex Jr., was that he felt relief. Thrills and nerves and gratitude, all that normal stuff, but also definitely, definitely relief.

That ape that jumped off his back? Shouldn’t be hard to find it traipsing through the infield.

This, of course, was just Elliott’s first Cup win. It took him 99 tries and eight second-place finishes to collect his first checkered, and at a road course, to boot. Compared to Bill, that’s ... almost exactly the same. Eight runners-up, and then home free at a road course. He truly is his father’s son.

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Sunday’s win at Watkins Glen may be the beginning of something great for Chase Elliott, or it may be just a blip on the radar. Julie Jacobson AP

But NASCAR, less so than the modern NBA or NFL, is not predicated on success alone. Stars, fan favorites may emerge even without terrific statistics. Jimmie Johnson had oodles more wins than Dale Jr., but in a popularity contest? Earnhardt would overwhelm 10 times out of 10. It’s about personality, having a down-to-earth nature that is especially respected in NASCAR. And a famous last name doesn’t hurt, either.

NASCAR’s doom is not imminent, as some have suggested, without the famous faces and champions of this generation. Even with Earnhardt and Gordon and Stewart moving on to other ventures in the sport, there is still Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and the aforementioned Johnson — legit stars with legit driving chops, to boot.

But an overwhelming megastar? A surefire, you-have-to-see-’em-live sort of driver and personality? Someone who, on any given Sunday, can fill an entire set of grandstands even in the leanest of times?

That is what NASCAR is currently lacking. That is the expectation for Chase. This season’s Most Popular Driver award has long been locked up, a foregone conclusion the day Dale Jr. and Danica Patrick announced their retirements. If Elliott never won a Cup race this season — heck, if he never won a Cup race, period — he’s still got the looks, the laid-back demeanor and the Southern gentleman charm to woo legions of fans.

Oh, and that last name.

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Out of fuel after the finish at Watkins Glen, Chase Elliott (center) was pushed to Victory Lane by the banged-up No. 48 Chevy of seven-time Cup champion and teammate Jimmie Johnson as his father raced to join the celebration after spotting. Julie Jacobson AP

And now he’s winning races?

This may be the beginning of something great for Elliott, or it may be just a blip on that radar. There’s even a world out there if that pool hall in Dawsonville has rung its siren for the final time. But I won’t pretend to know the future, and anyone who does is just setting themselves up for failure.

But I do know one thing: The people of Dawsonville were happier Sunday because of a 22-year-old with a legacy name. So were bunches of fellow drivers, pit crew members and anxious fans. Sunday was, simply put, a good day for racing.

NASCAR better hope there’s more to come.

1st Cup Series wins compared

Bill Elliott
Date: Nov. 20, 1983
Race: Winston Western 500 at Riverside International Raceway, Riverside, Calif.
Age: 28
Car: Ford Thunderbird
Team: Melling Racing
Of note: His 116th Cup start. Eight second-place finishes preceded win.

Chase Elliott
Date: Aug. 5, 2018
Race: Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Age: 22
Car: Chevrolet Camaro
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Of note: His 99th Cup start. Eight second-place finishes preceded win.

- Compiled by Mike Reader from racing-reference.info, Wikipedia

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