FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — When qualifying ended at Texas Motor Speedway, Chase Elliott hopped a fence and went on his way without a single fan bothering to stop him for an autograph or picture.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched the 18-year-old go by largely ignored and figured those days were numbered.
“I thought to myself, ‘I know he’s going to win one day or another, and then just start railing off run after run after run and become the next best thing,” Earnhardt said hours later. “It ain’t going to be long until he’s going to be swarmed with attention.”
Boy, Earnhardt had that pegged.
Elliott used a strong move on the outside to pass Kevin Harvick for the lead Friday night and then sailed away for his first career Nationwide Series victory.
The 18-year-old won in his sixth career start and is the second youngest winner in series history. He’s roughly four months older than Joey Logano, who was 18 years and 21 days when he won his first career Nationwide race in 2008.
Elliott won in a Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, driving the No. 9 as a tribute to his father, 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott.
“I can’t believe it, just to have the opportunity to race with these guys at JR Motorsports, just to have this opportunity is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any racer who wants to make it to the top,” Elliott said. “It just means the word for me to be here.”
Elliott became the fourth driver in Nationwide history to earn his first series victory at Texas, joining Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Trevor Bayne.
The victory continues the youth initiative in NASCAR as first-time winners have now won consecutive races for the first time since 2008. Two weeks ago, 21-year-old Kyle Larson scored his first career win at California.
For his efforts? Elliott gets to return home and go to school on Monday as he continues to finish his senior year of high school.
“I guess it will just be a normal Monday. Nobody likes Mondays,” Elliott said. “I’m sure it will be the same old deal, have a bunch of homework to do when I get back and get ready to go to Darlington.”
The win wowed Elliott’s father, and back home in Dawsonville, Ga., the siren outside the local pool room was blaring throughout the town to signify another local boy’s big victory.
“I’m about speechless,” Bill Elliott said in Victory Lane. “I felt like Chase could do it. I’ve watched him on Late Model team too much — I know how good the kid really is.
“To come here, to never have been to some of these places, like Las Vegas, California and now here at Texas, and come out and beat the kind of guys you’ve beat — I’ll tell you what, you’ve done a heck of a job.”
As a sign of how much respect Elliott already has among his peers, he was met following the win on pit road by Harvick, Larson and Kyle Busch. Then six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson came to Victory Lane to congratulate him.
“It’s pretty awesome to see him succeed, I knew it was just a matter of time,” said team co-owner Earnhardt Jr. “He has so much composure and ability and is years ahead of guys that age. And he’s learning so much on the fly. He’s learning faster than you can teach him what’s going on.”
Kyle Busch, a 65-time race winner in the Nationwide Series, finished second. He was third two weeks ago when Larson won, and hasn’t seemed to mind these defeats.
“These are the guys that are growing up and are young and being able to run hard and run strong and run with the best of them,” said Busch. “It’s neat to see them being successful and running with the best of them. I hate to lose, but it’s still cool to see the younger guys have the opportunities to win races and when they do, they seem to make it look good and win in style, so congrats to Chase.”
Elliott, who led four times for 38 laps, was strong Friday night and passed car owner Earnhardt Jr. for the lead at one point. But he was second behind Harvick on the final restart with 23 laps to go, and flirted several times with making a pass for the win before finally completing the move with a strong outside pass.
“That was wild,” said third-place finisher Larson. “He’d been trying to make it work and he must have had an extreme run that one time, got to Harvick’s quarter panel and made him loose. From there on, I knew he was probably going to win the race unless we got a caution.”
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