It took 99 races and over two-and-a-half years of competing full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but Chase Elliott scored his coveted first career victory on Aug. 5, 2018 at Watkins Glen International. A race which he dominated finally put to rest critics wondering if his Cup Series breakthrough would ever come.
Prior to securing his first victory, Elliott joined his father, Hall of Famer Bill, on the all-time ranks of most second-place finishes (eight) without grabbing that elusive first checkered flag. But on that warm, sunny day at that famed upstate New York road course, the son would not be denied. Chase Elliott beat 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. by a comfortable 7.56 seconds to the delight of a sold-out crowd.
Elliott had led 974 laps, posting 27 top-five and 48 top-10 finishes before entering the Winner’s Circle in NASCAR’s premier series. And once he got there, it was tough to get rid of the No. 9 car.
In a season where Chevrolet was down across the board after introducing the Camaro ZL1 to Cup, Elliott’s second half of the season was one to be remembered. Why? The sport’s soon-to-be Most Popular Driver was finally having success in the top division of motorsports. More on that in a minute.
But just how down were the cars he drove? In the first 21 races of the season, going from coast to coast, Chevrolet only had one NASCAR Cup victory on every type of track. That was a desperate last-lap pass in the season opener by Austin Dillon, when he turned Aric Almirola as the field entered Turn 3 to win the Daytona 500.
Fast forward nearly six months. It took half a calendar year for Elliott to bring the ‘ole No. 9 to Victory Lane.
Was it a surprise the Dawsonville, Ga. native’s first win was on a road course? Maybe. But flashback to 2013 when the Camping World Truck Series took to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. It was Elliott who found Victory Lane there, though not without controversy, spinning Ty Dillon on the last lap. That was his first win in that series.
Hell, flash back to 1983, when Chase’s own flesh and blood won his first race at Riverside International Speedway, another road course. We all know how Bill’s career spiraled upward after that win. 44 career victories at the Cup level and a 16-time Most Popular Driver streak followed suit, along with the 1988 championship.
It just depends on how you feel about numbers and history, but it’s kind of ironic that Elliott’s first career win came on a road course and he had eight second-place finishes, just like his father. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s not.
But unlike his father, who won his first race in a season finale Elliott had a chance to add to his total. He entered the 2018 postseason with a batch of momentum, posting six consecutive top-10 finishes between New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway, the longest such streak he had throughout the season.
However, when the playoffs got underway at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in mid-September, the No. 9 car started off with a bang, literally. When running sixth on lap 211, Jamie McMurray spun in front of Elliott. The No. 9 “barely clipped” the No. 1 machine, ending his shot at a solid finish. Due to the hit to the outside wall, the third-year driver yelped on the radio about a possible shoulder injury. (He was fine.)
The series went to Richmond Raceway for the second race of the postseason and Elliott recovered to finish fourth. In the final race in the Round of 16, he tried to back up his Watkins Glen performance on the Charlotte ROVAL, but that race was a crapshoot to begin with, since it was the first Cup event on the layout. The No. 9 car finished sixth, enough to rebound from Las Vegas and move on in the playoffs.
It was that Round of 12 in which we saw Elliott become an elite driver. Kevin Harvick dominated at Dover International Speedway, but had an issue on pit road late in the race. It left his teammate, Aric Almirola, in the catbird’s seat, but was called to pit road during a late caution. Elliott was not, as his crew chief Alan Gustafson decided not to pit with 11 laps remaining.
That left him track position for a pair of late-race restarts. Elliott schooled the competition, edging out Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano to win at Dover. It was his second victory in nine races, clinching an automatic berth into the Round of 8.
Talladega is Talladega, and Elliott was caught up in a crash. But the following week at Kansas Speedway was another standout performance by the No. 9 team.
It was almost like it was the same song, different verse. Harvick was dominant again, though this time had a late-race speeding penalty. Elliott jumped out front, this time holding off Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson for the race win. It was the third victory in 11 races for Elliott, and again, momentum had been built.
However, the Round of 8 didn’t go as planned, despite two finishes inside the top seven. At ISM Raceway, he was involved in a multi-car incident that started when Hamlin got into Kurt Busch, sending the No. 41 into the wall, ricocheting into Elliott.
The wreck meant Elliott’s championship hopes went up in smoke for the second consecutive season in the desert. But heading into 2019, he’s leaps and bounds ahead of where he was last year. Three wins, 21 top 10s, leading 325 laps, finishing sixth in points, all of which came in a down year for Chevrolet.
Not all of those are career highs; in fact, some are career lows. But considering the headwinds, Hendrick has to be happy. Hands down, Elliott was the best Chevrolet for the duration of the 2018 season, outpacing Larson. His Chevy rival at Chip Ganassi Racing had flashes of brilliance, including six runner-up finishes, but never reached Victory Lane. Elliott was also the only Chevrolet driver to reach the Round of 8.
Now, people will be expecting more. You’ve got to think entering his fourth full season, Elliott will be among the championship favorites heading into 2019.
And, oh yeah, he just turned 23 years old.
In present day NASCAR where drivers are rushed to the Cup Series, it took three years before Elliott won. But once he did, the young driver has matured before our eyes as one of the top stars in all of stock car racing. His career will likely span through at least 2035, he will likely win multiple championships, and at a ripe age of 23, Elliott is destined for success now.
Halfway through summer, many people were wondering “are we going to go another year of Chase not winning a race?” He answered that at the Glen, and boy when he took the lead, the grandstands were a shakin’. Elliott’s beloved by so many fans and was rewarded at the championship banquet in late November, where he was crowned the sport’s Most Popular Driver. But that was a given.
Popularity can’t win Elliott races; only he and the No. 9 team can. And in 2018, they finally proved their ability to do it.
Welcome to the Chase Elliott era, folks.
Prediction: Elliott wins the most races in the Cup Series in 2019.