Like his father, Chase Elliott feels Coca-Cola 600 heartbreak

NASCAR

If you would allow me to share with you some personal advice, feel free to write this down on a Post-It and keep it in your wallet or purse.

Should a member of the Elliott family, particularly anyone named William Clyde Elliott, invite you to join them for a Memorial Day weekend get together at Charlotte Motor Speedway, you should smile, thank them for the opportunity … and then tell them you have other plans. Your hot dogs will end up burned. Your beer will go flat. And your evening will end with your significant other leaving with someone else.

On Sunday night-turned-Monday morning, William Clyde Elliott II — aka Chase — suffered the same kind of Coca-Cola 600 heartbreak that used to haunt his father, William Clyde Elliott I — aka Bill — during his legendary Cup Series career.

Chase Elliott had run away with NASCAR’s endurance race. Then that race ran right over him.

“I’ve had some tough losses in my first however many years I’ve been doing this,” he said through his facemask during the postrace video teleconference. “Unfortunately, it is what it is.”

What it is, is a bit unbelievable. For 595.5 miles, Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson made all the right calls when it came to strategy, even those that looked like they might be mistakes. They overcame a midrace spring rubber issue by pitting twice, making the fix, and staying in the hunt. Seventy-seven laps later, Gustafson elected to keep the No. 9 Chevy out on the racetrack when others pitted, nearly falling out of the top 20, but again managing to keep distant contact with the leaders of the race.

As the race finally entered its final stanza, Elliott had moved into the lead with 35 laps remaining and as that lap count entered single digits the world — okay, maybe just this sportswriter — started working on their eloquent descriptions of the 24-year-old’s first “Crown Jewel” victory. Finally, the official coronation of the kid who has carried the title of “NASCAR’s Next Legend” since he was first being carried through the garage by his Hall of Fame father.

After all, he had nearly a two-second lead with only three laps remaining and in the words of Fox Sports analyst and Chase Elliott mentor Jeff Gordon, he was “totally locked in right now.”

Then Gordon’s old ride, the No. 24 of William Byron — Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate — cut a tire and spun to bring out the caution flag. Under that caution, with two laps remaining, Gustafson made the call to bring Elliott back down pit road one more time. The hope was that the cars behind them would follow. They did not.

Elliott had surrendered the lead and was forced to fight his way through the green-white-checker restart mid-pack. He did manage to get all the way back up to third, behind race winner Brad Keselowski and another teammate, Jimmie Johnson. Johnson’s finish was disqualified when his Chevy failed postrace inspection, moving Elliott up to second.

That did not make him feel any better.

“I mean, you are f—-ing me!” he screamed over the radio during the race’s cool down lap. “It f—-ing sucks! … Never in my life, man! Unbelievable! Always f—-ing something!”

He isn’t wrong. Especially this week. It was only four nights earlier when Elliott might have had a shot at a victory at Darlington Raceway, closing on leader Denny Hamlin when he was clipped from behind by Kyle Busch at the start of the race’s final green flag lap. That front stretch wreck led to an outstretched middle finger directed toward Busch, shown to the world in 4K UHD.

At Charlotte, those two drivers were caught by those same TV cameras sharing a very different moment. Busch, who finished fourth, had his arm around a dejected Elliott, slumped over the roof of his Napa Auto Parts machine. What did Busch have to say?

“He just felt bad for us.”

Everyone did. Even race winner Keselowski, in the midst of celebrating his own Crown Jewel victory, paused to say, “We have all been there. You never want to see someone have to suffer a loss like that.” Johnson, Busch and third place Ryan Blaney all offered their public condolences. As they did, Elliott’s loss began to dominate social media. An hour after the race had ended, Gustafson was the highest trending non-COVID-19 topic on Twitter.

“We were just trying to make the best decision you can,” Elliott said of the decision to pit. “You make decisions and you live with them. I don’t think it was the pit call. I think being on offense is fine. Those guys are going to do the opposite of what you do, so … just part of it.”

Memorial Day weekend heartbreak has been “part of it” for the Elliott family since before Chase was born. His father’s Hall of Fame résumé contains only one blemish, the lack of a Coca-Cola 600 victory. Awesome Bill from Dawsonville won 44 races, including a pair of Daytona 500s, three Southern 500s at Darlington, a Cup Series championship and two fall Charlotte wins, but he was 0-for-31 in the 600.

The most famous of those losses came in 1985, when he had a chance to win the Winston Million bonus for taking three out of NASCAR’s four Crown Jewel events. After a Daytona 500 win, a legendary victory at Talladega from two laps down, and winning the pole position for the 600, he appeared to be a shoo-in. But the pressure of the moment ate him alive, at one point hiding under his racecar in the garage to avoid the media crush. He finished 18th, 21 laps down to winner Darrell Waltrip. Elliott won the million bucks at Darlington that fall, but lost the championship to Waltrip, due in no small part to what happened in the 600.

This was only Chase Elliott’s sixth shot at the 600, so he has plenty of time to reverse the Elliott Curse. He has been racing since he could walk, so this is also not his first run-in with, as his dad liked to say, “one of them deals of a situation.” William Clyde Elliott II is a special talent with a cool head. No one doubts that he’s going to win more races or that his career is still in the process of just now beginning to reach its long-foreseen greatness.

But none of that will make this sting of this race go away anytime soon, even with another shot at Charlotte scheduled for Wednesday night during NASCAR’s quick turnaround pandemic schedule. Shots at the 600 only come around once a year.

“Just try again. That’s all you can do. That’s really the only option. I can’t rewind time, so that’s the only choice.”

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