The transformation of Chase Elliott


DAWSONVILLE, Ga. -- So just what is it that Chase Elliott does best, already at age 18, to dazzle all of NASCAR the past two weeks, to set the siren blaring as of yore atop the Dawsonville Pool Room, drawing folks from the outlying Blue Ridge foothills into town to celebrate at midnight?

He adapts.

Completely, beautifully, seemingly instantaneously, somehow effortlessly.

He couldn't even remember the last time he'd been to ornery, treacherous old Darlington Raceway -- it had to be sometime when he was a little boy, with his father -- before he raced there last week. He drove it in a commanding way reminiscent of David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt, and yes, of his own father, who'd gotten one of his nicknames at Darlington -- Million Dollar Bill -- and won.

Chase was even more impressive than at Texas Motor Speedway the week before. He'd never been there at all, yet he quickly grasped the dipsy-doodle transitions onto and off the banking, and won.

Darlington might have made three in a row. He might well have looked just as precocious the week before Texas, at Fontana, Calif. -- another place he'd never been -- but not even prodigies can always avoid the mistakes of other talents rising up through the ranks, and his car was collected in the early wreck of highly publicized Dylan Kwasniewski. Elliott continued, drove back up as high as third, but his car was damaged enough that it impeded his crew's changing tires on pit stops. That dropped him back, but he finished sixth anyway.

And now he stands atop the Nationwide Series standings, as a rookie who is making his debut at every big track where the tour takes him.

"Anything over a mile I've never been old enough to go do" until this year, he says, referring to NASCAR's requirement that drivers be at least 18 to run the superspeedways.

Bill Elliott doesn't get worked up over much -- put simply, "he is not excitable," says Chase's team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Not even when Awesome Bill from Dawsonville put this north Georgia town (it was a hamlet then) on the map in 1985, winning 11 races, including the Daytona 500, and the Winston Million bonus.

Even now, Bill speaks of his son in his same soft, even tones. He knew the kid was very good, but the real precociousness began to strike him at Las Vegas on March 8, the third Nationwide race of the season.

Bill sat with the spotter up high above the grandstands. "And I was amazed at how well he did," Bill says, with rare inflection on "amazed."

"You go to California, and it's the same way. And Texas was like ..." Bill's voice trails off, searching for the words. "And he'd never been there.

"He'd never been to those places. And you go outrun Kyle Busch [previously the undisputed dominator of Nationwide] ... and then you've got Little E, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and you outrun all those guys, and you've never been there. You've never been to the place.

"And that's what blows me away about it."

Blown away is a relative term with Awesome Bill. At Darlington, while Chase drove the race of his life -- so far -- Bill was spotted leaning up against a tool cart in the pits, expressionless, fully realizing by this point that his son "has been very adaptable."

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