There’s a new young lion in NASCAR. And my goodness, how he roars.
Friday night, 18-year-old Chase Elliott muscled his way past veteran Elliott Sadler on the final lap to score his second consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series win in the VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 at Darlington (SC) Raceway. It was the second victory in just seven career Nationwide starts for Elliott, the son of former NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Bill Elliott.
While Elliott was clearly the dominant driver of the evening, leading three times for a total of 52 laps. He needed a little luck, however, to make it to Victory Lane. He trailed leader Kyle Busch by nearly two seconds until Tanner Berryhill spun to bring out the caution with just seven laps remaining. A poor pit stop dropped him to sixth in the running order, setting the stage for a furious, late-race charge to Victory Lane.
Despite lining up sixth for the ensuing green-white-checkered flag restart, Elliott wasted little time getting to the front. He powered past Kevin Harvick for fifth on the high side of Turn One, before disposing of both Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson on the backstretch. He drove around Matt Kenseth as the white flag flew to take the runner-up spot, then capitalized when Sadler bobbled at the exit of Turn Two, regaining the lead and holding it to the checkered flag.
The victory was Elliott's second in as many weeks – after his inaugural series win at Texas Motor Speedway last Saturday night-- and made him the first NASCAR National Series driver to win in his Darlington debut since Dick Rathmann in 1952; three years before proud papa Bill Elliott was born. He also expanded his lead in the Nationwide championship standings to seven points over teammate Regan Smith.
"That last restart was crazy,” said Elliott, who skipped his High School prom to race at Darlington. “I didn't know what to expect starting sixth. I knew the guys on two tires were going to be a little slower than those on four, and it happened to work out. Elliott (Sadler) got a little loose in two and gave me the outside, and that's where I wanted to be, anyway."
While Elliott’s win was his first at Darlington, he is no stranger to Victory Lane at “The Track Too Tough to Tame.” His father was a five-time Darlington winner, including a 1985 Southern 500 victory that earned him the nickname "Million Dollar Bill."
After the race, Chase Elliott called his victory at the legendary 1.366-mile Palmetto State oval, "truly a dream come true. It's a place I've always loved watching races, and it's probably my favorite track to watch a race as a fan."
Sadler made the most of a two-tire gamble on the race’s final pit stop to finish second, followed by Kenseth, Busch, Joey Logano, Larson and Harvick. Elliott’s win left several veteran NASCAR drivers shaking their heads in amazement. Seven-time Darlington Sprint Cup winner Jeff Gordon tweeted, “Man is it fun to watch these young kids drive! Amazing final lap by @ChaseElliott.”
Six-time and defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was more succinct in his praise, saying simply, “Damn, that kid is good!”
Elliott’s car owner, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., said after the race, "I like to call him the new Elvis … he's the full package." Earnhardt also warned that the best may be yet to come for his young protégé, saying, “He ain't even focusing on racing (yet). He's in school. Wait until he gets graduated, he's going to be really trouble for those other boys."
Elliott graduates from Dawson County High School on May 17, and will juggle his racing schedule to attend. Plans call for him to practice at Iowa Speedway that Friday, before returning home to Dawsonville Saturday for afternoon graduation. He will fly back to the track to qualify that evening.
"I want to make mom happy,” said Elliott of his whirlwind Graduation Day. “I know she's going to be excited about that one.”