The first win is always a special one for any Cup Series driver.
It signifies that they finally made it, validating that they do belong in one of the top NASCAR series. However, Chase Elliott’s first win at Watkins Glen International in 2018 meant a little bit more to him, even if it came after 99 starts and eight runner-up finishes. He had his dad, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, spotting for him through the Bus Stop.
As the two embraced on Victory Lane, creating an emotional scene for onlookers, the siren at the Dawsonville Pool Room sounded in celebration for the Elliotts’ first Cup win since Bill’s 44th and final victory in 2003.
“It’s the epitome of a father son relationship in this business,” says Eddie D’Hondt, spotter for Chase and Bill, about that moment.
With a 40-year age gap, the two raced in dramatically different NASCAR worlds. The cars, safety equipment and rulebook evolved over the years, and drivers used to be more hands-on with their vehicles during Bill’s era. One thing has remained constant, though: The family’s success. Bill won what was then known as the Winston Cup in 1988; Chase has a chance to win the Cup Series at Sunday’s Season Finale 500 in Phoenix, which he will start from the pole. Chase got there by racing with the same old-school mentality as his father and uncles.
And it all started with a small, family-run team in Dawsonville, Ga.
Dawsonville, Ga., is a suburb 60 miles north of Atlanta whose culture and heritage are deeply rooted in moonshine and, with help from the Elliotts, the early history of NASCAR.
But back when Bill was growing up there, it was “just a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere.”
Like Chase, Bill grew up around racing. His father, George, owned a Ford dealership and started a speed shop on the side in the 1960s while working his way into racing. George loved going to races and sold parts to the local drivers before becoming a short track team owner.
When Ernie, one of Bill’s older brothers, started racing and building race cars, Bill wanted to join. He tried fixing up his own car, and once Ernie saw he was serious about racing, he bought Bill an old race car. Together, they worked on it and started racing it, with their dad supporting them along the way. “My dad always felt like NASCAR was where you needed to be,” Bill says, “and kept pushing me in that direction.”
The early days of Bill’s career were hard. They would show up but not run fast enough to qualify for a race. And, unlike today’s generation, he didn’t start racing until he was 16 or 17 years old. “I just enjoyed working on the car,” Bill says. “The driving was a second thing. As I went on, I enjoyed racing, and when we got to where we could be competitive, then things got more serious and got harder.”
It was mainly Ernie and Bill who worked on the cars, and while they didn’t have much money, their dad helped them make it work. It paid off as Bill started racing in the Winston Cup Series in 1976, but he didn’t snag his first win until his first full season in 1983.
Bill grew alongside the sport, watching media coverage grow as CBS aired the Daytona 500 in its entirety for the first time in 1979 and then as a burgeoning cable network came onto the scene. “When ESPN came along, they brought it more to the grassroots person who couldn’t go to a race,” Bill says. “They exposed it because when you looked at ESPN, it was a young company at that time and it was carving its way.”
As the sport and his career continued to boom, it remained a family-run affair and Ernie kept the team honest. “Uncle Ernie is not shy when it comes to telling them the truth as to how the performance was and I think that’s how they treated their team,” Chase says. “If it was a fluke weekend that they weren’t running well and lucked into a good finish, he wanted to make sure everybody wasn’t excited and happy that they won but more so being realistic about how they ran.”
Everything finally clicked for the Elliotts in 1985—Bill’s career best year. Not only did he grab his first Daytona 500 win, but Bill won 11 races and 11 poles. He also won the first Winston Million, earning him the nickname “Million Dollar Bill.” His successful year landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
In 1987, he ran the fastest qualifying lap, setting an all-time record for his speed of 212.809 mph at Talladega. Not only did it win him the pole, but the record has not been broken since.
Bill and the Elliotts found success again in 1988, with six wins, six poles, 11 top-five and 22 top-ten finishes in 29 races and his lone championship.
By 1995, Bill started his own team and assumed sole ownership a year later. However, in 2001, Bill made a high-profile move and joined Ray Evernham as the lead driver of the new Dodge entry into the sport. His standings that year were his best overall since 1994 with one win, two poles, five top-fives, nine top-10s and a 15th place finish in the points. At the time, Chase was six years old.
“With a new race team, I think he was just having a lot of fun and it meant a lot to him,” Chase says. “Those were really the years that I remember. And, those were the years that kind of sparked my interest in and wanting to go do it too.”
Bill will never forget the time they raced at Talladega and he saw young Chase sitting on the pit wall with Evernham. “He looked at Ray,” Bill says, “and he said, ‘Man, another day at the races,’ like he was in heaven.”
Growing up in Dawsonville and watching his dad race each Sunday, it’s easy to say he was. Chase remembers how big Sunday races were for the town. “Those guys that raced on Sundays were heroes to many,” Chase says. “So when your dad is amongst that group and having success and beating them, and you go to the races, and you just see what the atmosphere was, and just this massive gathering, and then to see your dad be one of the stars of the show, who wouldn’t want to try, right?”
The closest equivalent Chase could think of to describe those moments are sons of singers watching their dads put on a concert in front of thousands of people. He saw the glory and glamour of it, and was immediately hooked. But as he got older, Chase became intrigued by the car dynamic and racing knowledge, like what it takes to go fast and be a real racer.
“As you race throughout the years, you learn new things and you either enjoy those challenges as it comes along or you don’t,” Chase says, “and I was lucky to continue to enjoy it as I got older.”
Chase got his start racing go karts on dirt in Georgia before his family moved to Colorado in 2005, and while they lived there, he competed in a ‘little sleepy go kart series.’ When they moved back to the South in 2007, he started racing bandoleros and legends. At the time, Bill was still racing in the Cup Series more than he would’ve liked despite being semi-retired. It became harder for Chase to go watch his dad when his own career started taking off.
As Chase made his way through the short tracks and late models, it still remained a family thing. Uncle Ernie built the motors and Uncle Dan built the transmissions, both also doing freelance work on the side. It was a pretty big family affair, Chase says, when they started to do pretty well, and that was something he loved.
“We had a group of people that worked here at the shop, and we didn’t go to Charlotte for information or data or this or that,” he says. “We did everything here, which reminded me a lot of how I would picture them going about their racing back in the 80s and having success with it.”
As Chase started making his own name and joining the Elliott legacy, Bill made one thing clear to his son. “I told him early on, ‘If you want to race, race. If you don’t want to race, don’t race,’” Bill says. “Don’t do it on my account. If that’s what you really truly want to do, do it.”
After a wild restart, Chase was leading the pack with three laps to go. Once again, it looked like this would be his first Cup Series victory. And once again, he was robbed of Victory Lane, but this time it wasn’t because of his own mistake.
Denny Hamlin bumped the No. 24 out of the way, sending Chase spinning into the wall, only for Kyle Busch to win the race. A majority of the field wrecked while coming to the start/finish line, practically creating a parking lot on the paper clip–shaped track.
During the cool down lap, Chase found Hamlin’s No. 11 and sideswiped him up into the wall a couple times before NASCAR parked everyone. Both drivers climbed out of their cars, and a heated argument ensued.
“You wrecked me!” Chase said in the video while Hamlin appeared to be shaking his head in disagreement.
“Danny wrecked him, period,” Bill said. “You don’t jack somebody’s rear wheels off the ground going into a corner and expect them to make it. It just don’t work that way.”
How Chase handled the incident in post-race interviews and the following days is what defined him as a driver because his true character showed.
“My mom always said if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” Elliott said, in the post-race interview in regard to Hamlin. “He’s not worth my time, so we’ll move onto Texas. It was just unnecessary and uncalled for. I can’t control his decisions and whatever the hell that was.”
As Chase began in the Cup Series, he was mainly known as Bill Elliott’s son and media outlets would ask what it’s like following in his dad’s shoes. And while they might be similar in a lot of respects, like how they both are among the most popular drivers for their generations, Chase carved his own destiny and continued to back it up time and time again after his first win at Watkins Glen, Bill says.
Chase, the reigning Most Popular Driver and 2016 Rookie of the Year, has won 10 races with 58 top-5 finishes in the last six years in the Cup series. The most recent of those came last weekend at Martinsville when he punched his ticket to the Championship 4 with a dominant performance that saw him win by more than six seconds. “He struggles with his own self-confidence sometimes,” Bill says, “but I’ve watched him over the years and he does too good of a job not to race.”
Racing isn’t the only family affair for the Elliotts. They have a love for flying too.
Bill started in 1976 when he was 21, and his brothers are also airline pilots. Because of them, Chase got his private pilot license in 2015 and most recently earned his multi-engine instrument rating.
Flying is one of the main ways Chase likes to spend his free time, and when he’s in the air, he finds peace. “I was lucky enough to grow up around aviation and [Bill] flying us places as a family and flying to races and things of that nature,” Chase says. “So I kind of adopted his approach from that standpoint and that ‘do it yourself’ mindset of getting places and having the ability to do that.”
Being able to have that skill set helped the Elliotts live outside of North Carolina, a NASCAR hub, for as long as they did. Being able to get yourself back and forth and not rely on others to do so, Chase said, is a big deal. And, while flying isn’t easy, it helps Chase prepare for racing in a way.
Because, at the end of the day, you have the final say on what’s right and what’s wrong.
“Every time you go fly, you learn something new,” Chase says. “There’s always something changing or always a new situation you haven’t seen yourself in, and just time and experience are really the only ways to go through and learn all the things that you need to.”
The Elliotts like to keep things simple and do things in an old-school mentality. It’s stretched across generations, whether it’s flying or racing.
“In this day and age, we can look at data until we’re blue in the face,” Chase said. “We can talk about it, and everybody can tweet about it and defend themselves 10 minutes after the checkered flag is done on Sunday.”
Chase learned from his parents and uncles to be “cut-and-dry,” and when he doesn’t have a good day, there’s no excuse for it. People need to start seeing things for the way they are, he says.
While Chase embraces being an Elliott and competes in a manner similar to his dad and uncles, he is carving out his own destiny and making his own mark on NASCAR. He does it simply, the only way the Elliotts know how. “There were people from around the Southeast and they did their deal here in Georgia,” he says. “I kind of like not being like the rest as far as that goes, and trying to be a little different bringing a little bit of an old-school mentality into the modern world of racing.”