It's difficult to believe, sometimes, that the little boy Bill Elliott used to affectionately call "Slug" will be making his Sprint Cup debut this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
At the age of 19, Chase Elliott has covered all the hurdles, most recently winning the Xfinity Series championship. His talent has been evident
since first cocking the wheel on the red clay tracks of Georgia. After a relatively quick trip through the minor leagues, Elliott's poise and lineage now make him a perfectly logical successor to Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolets of Rick Hendrick.
If it doesn't rain, the creeks don't rise or a locomotive doesn't jump the tracks behind Martinsville's back straight, Elliott will take up the family business where his father Bill left off not all that long ago. In the celebrity sports industrial complex so much is often made of so little. But this one is the real deal.
In some respects, Chase Elliott's debut has been a long time coming.
His cousin Casey, the son of engine builder Ernie Elliott, was also a sure-shot prospect on short tracks. Tall and lanky, Casey had the aggressiveness of Dale Earnhardt and the smoothness of his Uncle Bill. He drove cars built and powered by father Ernie with sometimes incredible skill, then climbed out and turned into a polite and shy teenager. But after only two Xfinity Series starts, Casey first lost a leg to cancer and then lost the overall battle at the age of 21 in 1996 just a few months after Chase Elliott was born.
Having grown up in Dawson County like his cousin, father and uncles, including Dan Elliott, the third member of the famed family racing team, Chase has more than family lineage. He is part of the "state of Dawson" as the residents like to refer to the jagged hills and forests in the foothills of the Appalachians. It's about an attitude and self-assuredness that goes beyond anything a young man can say.
The Elliotts were not the first phenomenal talents to roar out of Dawsonville. In the days when moonshine and bootleggers were the stuff of legend, Lloyd Seay was known for his occasional two-wheeled cornering technique used on the packed sands of the original Beach and Road Course in Daytona. Seay (pronounced "see") didn't live long enough to run a NASCAR-sanctioned event. His grains of time ran out only hours after he won the Labor Day event on Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway in 1941, driving his car number 13 to his sixth major stock car victory of the year.
Seay was shot through the heart at age 21 that same night in a fight with a cousin over who would pay for a load of sugar, a key ingredient in moonshine.
I first heard this story from George Elliott, who founded the team that would eventually carry his youngest son to the status of "Awesome Bill From Dawsonville." Once I looked up rare photographs of Seay in the collection of longtime Atlanta bootlegger and racing team owner Raymond Parks, it was eerie just how much he resembled the lanky, sandy-haired Bill Elliott in appearance as well as cocksure attitude.
So now William Clyde "Chase" Elliott is up, earning his chance in the Sprint Cup after scoring three victories and the championship while driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year in his first Xfinity Series season.
Of course, when it comes to appearance Chase takes after his dark-haired, not-so-tall, mother Cindy more so than his famous father or his red-haired uncles.
Although more articulate than his father, the gravelly-voiced younger Elliott maintains a polite and well mannered script in most of his comments, letting his driving do the talking.
"I never expected things would work out like this," Elliott said shortly after he was announced as Gordon's replacement. "Outside of the Hendrick Motorsports family you heard rumors a couple years back that Jeff would be retiring (but) I never really accepted that in my mind. I didn't want that to be something I got excited for and thought that would be an opportunity for me. I never wanted that to be the case. I just wanted to make the most of each race, each week and never get my hopes up for something that might not happen."
Team owner Hendrick says Elliott has "the intangibles." Earnhardt Jr. says Elliott has the "it factor." His high school classmates, meanwhile, call him "Chase From The Exact Same Place."
There's not much Elliott the younger hasn't accomplished given his age. He became the youngest ARCA superspeedway winner at the daunting 2.5-mile Ponoco International Raceway in 2013. He's won four of the biggest short track events in the U.S. on all manner of tracks the All American 400, the Snowball Derby, the Winchester 400 and the World Crown 300. Before moving to the Xfinity Series, he won the Camping World Truck Series race on the road course at Mosport Park in a high-speed duel with Austin Dillon. His Xfinity championship made him the youngest ever title winner in a major NASCAR touring series.
And now Hendrick has exercised his driver development contract by naming Elliott the successor to one of NASCAR's all-time greats. Entering the first of five Sprint Cup races this season while defending his Xfinity title, the young Elliott will not find the going easy. He's only raced twice at Martinsville in one of NASCAR's major traveling series with a best finish of sixth in a Truck Series race. He'll be up against an aggressive field of drivers in no mood to mollycoddle a rookie during all the fender-banging typical of the narrow half mile.
That's if Elliott makes the field.
He'll be qualifying with no safety net without team owner points for his No. 25 entry and has to get in on speed. If it rains, he will not make the field. According to NASCAR statistics, once the green flag falls Elliott will attempt to become only the fourth driver to finish in the top 10 in his Sprint Cup debut since 1990.
The outcome matters less than the process of preparing for the 2016 season, when Elliott will join Dillon in the regeneration of NASCAR's southern accent. Beyond that, he'll take up the cudgel of the state of Dawson, where stock car racing has long since been in the blood.