By Dustin Albino

When Bill Elliott retired from NASCAR competition, the entire family moved to Colorado. Those were formative years for his son, Chase Elliott. 

Chase grew up racing at short tracks across the southeast. But once Colorado became home, his efforts shifted towards road course racing. It was one of the few options he had.

“Out there, racing road courses, rotax karts, shifter karts, all that stuff was about the only thing to race out in that direction in that part of the country,” Chase told at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I did some of that for a couple of years, granted, I was a kid at the time, maybe 9 or 10.”

The next experience the younger Elliott had on road courses was racing in legends cars and bandoleros. After that, it wasn‘t until the ARCA Menards Series before winning in his first time out in the Craftsman Truck Series at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, knocking Ty Dillon out of the way late. That was his sixth series start. 

Elliott didn‘t find instant success in the Xfinity Series on road courses. To this day, he‘s never won when turning left and right in NASCAR‘s second-tier division. 

When Elliott reached superstardom in the Cup Series with Hendrick Motorsports, he got better each year on road courses. He was stout on ovals, too, as he earned a solid 10 top-five finishes in his rookie 2016 campaign. He upped that number to 12 in 2017, picking up seven runner-up finishes in his first two seasons at the Cup level. Still, he took home zero trophies.

“It was really hard for me,” Elliott joked about trying to get his first win. “We had good runs at times. I think that‘s — not frustrating — but it made it more gratifying on the backend. We had some really good runs and we had run better in 2017 than we did in 2018, to be honest. We had a good final 10.

“I felt like we were doing everything that we needed to be doing and it wasn‘t falling our way. They are tough, but having pace is the most important thing.”

Elliott had four second-place finishes during the 2017 postseason alone. Narrowly missing out on the Championship 4, he brought momentum into 2018, though Hendrick Motorsports struggled as a whole. In the opening 21 races of the season, the No. 9 team had a handful of top fives. Next on the schedule was Watkins Glen International. 

Elliott‘s crew chief Alan Gustafson brought a hot road to Watkins Glen, as the No. 9 car was quickest in final practice and qualified third. Elliott remained inside the top five for the duration of the race, taking the lead for the first time from Kyle Busch on lap 27. 

“I thought our car was pretty good,” Elliott recalled. “I had gotten to Kyle early in the race and he was very respectful of that. I don‘t think he put up much of a fight at that point in the race, much like I think is the proper thing to do in that situation and get to that next stage and go to work. From the start, I thought we had a good car and you hope that the strategy goes your way.”

Elliott led the next 18 laps before Busch retook the lead on a restart. The No. 9 car gained control of the race when the No. 18 team was called back to pit road for a second time during the final caution of the race on lap 55 when the team realized it had fueled the car wrong. 

“I remember the race itself and us and the 18 were racing for the win and he had an issue on pit road, like he didn‘t get it full of fuel,” Elliott said. “He, us and [Martin Truex Jr.], we were all battling for the win. When Kyle had an issue, that left Martin and I to race it out.”

Busch charged from 31st to third over the final third of the race, far behind the battle for the win between Elliott and Truex. Those two distanced the field and had a heads up battle for the trophy. Elliott was just good enough to stay in front of a motivated Truex.

With the race winding down, both Elliott and Truex were close to making it to the checkered flag on fuel. Elliott wasn‘t aware of how tight the No. 9 car exactly was. 

On the white-flag lap, Elliott nearly gave another potential win away, going wide in Turn 1, which some of the best in the sport‘s history have done. Elliott says Turn 1 is easy to miss because gravity is working against you, braking hard downhill. That makes for less grip and drivers can‘t stop as fast. But hitting Turn 1 is important because it propels into the esses and then the back straightaway, which is a giant section of the course.

“I remember trying to hang on,” Elliott said. “[Truex] had caught up to me. I remember taking the white and having a moment there in [Turn] 1 and he almost got to me. I was able to get back clear up through the esses and then felt OK about beating him back around.”

Truex ran out of gas coming down the shortshute, and Elliott stretched his lead to 7.5 seconds to win his first Cup race in his 100th start on August 5, 2018. Bill was one of his spotters and greeted him in Victory Lane. 

“We had been close a lot and had come up short,” Elliott said. “We kept showing up, kept fighting and kept putting ourselves in a good position and one finally came around.”

Elliott ran out of fuel on the cooldown lap, needing a push from his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson to get to the frontstretch to celebrate with his team.

The win at Watkins Glen opened the floodgates with Elliott scoring playoff wins at Dover Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, advancing to the Round of 8. He came up shy of making the Championship 4. 

The first one was the hardest to come by. 

“I guess just getting over the hump there and getting a little bit of a confidence boost for myself and our team can go a long way,” he said. “I guess there is something to it.”

In a season full of starts and stops, Elliott hasn‘t gotten over the proverbial hump yet in 2023. He missed six races early in the season due to a broken leg in a snowboarding accident and was suspended at World Wide Technology Raceway for intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin during the Coca-Cola 600. 

Elliott sits 80 points below the cutline with two races remaining in the regular season, and the No. 9 team needs to win this weekend at Watkins Glen or next week at Daytona to make the postseason for the eighth straight season.

The good news for Elliott fans is he has four straight top-five finishes at Watkins Glen, with a pair of wins. He also finished runner-up to Michael McDowell last weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. If the No. 9 team can execute, Elliott should be in the battle on Sunday. 

“We might go up there and be really good, we might go up there and be junk,” Elliott said of Watkins Glen this weekend. “That‘s why I don‘t circle them. I‘m going to prepare the same way that I do every week, and we‘re going to show up prepared as a team and do our best to make sure it goes our way. If it does, great and if it doesn‘t we will keep working.”

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