Chase Elliott may not have won a NASCAR Cup race yet, but on Sunday he won the hearts and minds of NASCAR fans, says Jim Utter.
Granted, Elliott, the 21-year-old son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, had many of the ingredients necessary for such a declaration before Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
He certainly has the pedigree and in his relatively short NASCAR career stops in all three national series, he’s experienced much success, including an Xfinity Series championship in 2014.
Since moving full-time to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with Hendrick Motorsports, Elliott has yet to win a race, but he has come painfully close on several occasions… including at Martinsville, until Denny Hamlin wrecked him while he was leading late in the race.
But Elliott found something far more important in the moments after that incident, something that resonated with the fans watching in the grandstands and on TV, that further elevated the admiration they already had for him.
Elliott found his voice.
Or more importantly in the eyes of his fans – and the new ones he made Sunday – he stood up for himself against a veteran who had obviously wronged him.
There have been countless complaints from fans and even some members of the media in the last year or so, wondering how NASCAR was going to find stars to replace those who have recently stepped away or are about to – who could possibly be the new Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
My contention has been that the new stars are already among us. We’ve just had to wait to see them make the ascension themselves. It’s not something you plan or can even attempt to. That’s exactly what you saw take place with Elliott.
He did not know going into Sunday’s race he would have a legitimate shot to win the race – and the chance to compete for the series championship that comes with that victory. He didn’t know Denny Hamlin – or anyone else – would be in position to deny him that chance by wrecking him.
And he certainly hadn’t planned out his reaction to any of that beforehand.
But it all took place, and with a certain grace under fire, Elliott weathered the storm much to the delight of the fans who braved the frigid temperatures in the grandstands.
With each confrontational moment on the track, or in person as Elliott and Hamlin stood toe-to-toe outside their cars, the crowd grew louder and more boisterous.
In the constant replays on Martinsville’s big screen TV afterwards, every time Elliott’s face was shown on the screen, the roars of approval got louder. Every time Hamlin’s did – a Virginia native by the way – the cascading boos drowned out the sound of anything else nearby, including Kyle Busch’s victory celebration.
And finally, there were Elliott’s post-race comments. He patiently, almost methodically, addressed each question. He never needed to use curse words or obscene gestures to make his point that he found Hamlin’s actions “uncalled for.”
It couldn’t have been clearer that he had public opinion on his side but I’m not sure he cared at that particular moment.
You can be sure of one thing, Elliott made his point, one that Hamlin certainly didn’t miss, which was evident by Hamlin’s apology issued on Twitter long after the postrace interviews were concluded on pit road.
Chase Elliott still hasn’t won a race in the Cup series. But if you are wondering where NASCAR would find superstars to replace its lost legends, one was found on a cold October night in rural Virginia in a race that not many will soon forget.