Long: Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson share a moment in time
Awash in unparalleled joy at winning his first Cup championship, Chase Elliott’s mind raced back to Dawsonville, Georgia.
There in his parents’ office is a photo of Bill Elliott high-fiving Matt Kenseth from their cars after Kenseth won the 2003 championship and Elliott won the race that day at Rockingham in what would be his final Cup victory.
The photo came into focus when Chase Elliott saw Jimmie Johnson drive toward him Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, waving to fans after his final race as a full-time Cup competitor.
“Damn, that would be super, super cool to recreate that moment,” Elliott thought to himself of the photo with his father and Kenseth.
Soon the cars of Johnson and Elliott were positioned to do that.
Some will view the moment as a proverbial passing of the torch from one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers to one of its burgeoning stars.
In that moment, though, what was exchanged was primal.
“We were just screaming, or I was screaming,” Elliott later said. “I don’t know what he said, but I know we high-fived each other, and that was really cool.”
Elliott’s victory is easy to view as a seminal moment for NASCAR, similar to how Jeff Gordon’s first Cup start came in Richard Petty’s last race.
The difference is Gordon and Petty had no relationship at the time. Johnson and Elliott were teammates. To stop there, though, ignores the bond Johnson and Elliott have. It was only fitting that Johnson was among the first to congratulate the new champ Sunday.
Because Johnson had seen the other side.
Elliott seemed poised for his first Cup win at Dover in October 2017 before Kyle Busch passed him coming to the white flag to win.
It was the fifth time Elliott had finished second in a Cup race as he sought his first series victory. He often beat himself up after such finishes but none more than that day. Johnson finished third. He quickly headed to Elliott after the race to console his teammate.
“I knew I couldn’t make him feel any better,” Johnson said that day. “I just wanted to check on him and turn him around where people couldn’t see his face and let him get those few first words and sentences out. I anticipated them being cuss words, and they were.
“I just know from my own experience it’s just nice to kind of vent and get through that.”
Elliott endured three more runner-up finishes and 29 starts before he won his first Cup race in August 2018 at Watkins Glen. It came in his 99th career Cup start.
Elliott planned to drive to the section of the course where his father had been spotting to do a burnout in front of him. Instead, Elliott’s car ran out of fuel.
Johnson again was there.
He drove to Elliott’s motionless car and pushed it back around the track so Elliott could begin his first Cup victory celebration.
Elliott said that one of the “cool things” with the win that day was Johnson pushing his car because “he’s been a hero of mine for a long time, and he’s been a big supporter of mine, a guy I’ve leaned on a lot through some of those hard days.”
Johnson and Elliott might not have had the chance to form such a friendship and work together at Hendrick Motorsports had car owner Rick Hendrick not signed Elliott when he was 15 years old.
“I won’t name any names at our company, but I think a lot of people thought I was nuts,” Hendrick said Sunday after Elliott gave his organization its 13th Cup title in the past 26 years.
Hendrick said former car owner James Finch told him to check out the young Elliott years ago. Hendrick started watching video of Elliott’s races, was impressed and called Bill Elliott.
A deal was quickly done.
Elliott won his first Xfinity race in his sixth start. He then won the next race. He finished 2014 as the Xfinity champion as a rookie.
When it came time for Jeff Gordon to step away from full-time racing, Elliott took over the No. 24 car. After two winless seasons, the car number was changed to No. 9 to honor Elliott’s father and Elliott started winning.
Nearly a decade after Hendrick signed Elliott, the driver won his first Cup title. And did it in Johnson’s last race as a full-time Cup driver.
After the celebration on the track, Elliott, Johnson and Hendrick shared a moment together on pit road.
“Jimmie is really special to us, like part of our family,” Hendrick said. “Chase is the new kid coming along … not a kid, but … he’s a champion now.”
As they celebrated together, Elliott just kept saying: “Can you believe it?”