With second straight Nationwide win, Chase Elliott melts the normally cold, cruel heart of Darlington’s Lady In Black

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The Lady in Black – a.k.a. Darlington Raceway – hates almost everybody. That’s why so many of NASCAR’s best over the last five decades have been brought to their knees by her curse-like power and icy demeanor.

But at the same time, she has been known to have a few favorites.

She absolutely loved NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson, gracing him with a record 10 trips to victory lane during his Winston Cup career.

It’s also pretty clear the Lady likes Jeff Gordon (seven wins, most of any active driver at Darlington).

On Friday night, the old grand dame of NASCAR racetracks practically melted into a blushing schoolgirl, because the way young Chase Elliott won the VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 Nationwide Series race proves that she’s quickly gotten sweet on him, too.

Competing in his first-ever race at Darlington – the same place his father Bill won at five times in his illustrious Winston Cup career – the younger Elliott ignored things like Darlington’s hardest walls in all of NASCAR, drove like he didn’t need the mandatory yellow rookie stripe, and he barely walked away with an infamous Darlington stripe, as well.

And when the Lady in Black wiggled her finger, as if to tell young Chase to follow her to victory lane, the dark-haired Elliott returned her gaze with an impish grin. It was enough to melt the Lady’s heart as she cheered him on to the last lap win over another Elliott – Elliott Sadler.

While it may be hard to believe that an 18-year-old kid drove the way he did Friday night, it’s also clear that this is not just any regular 18-year-old kid.

He’s the progeny of one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers ever, a likely prospect to be a first-ballot vote next month into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2015 induction class.

And it’s pretty clear that Awesome Bill from Dawsonville taught his young son some very valuable lessons, because the way Chase rallied forward from sixth place to  the checkered flag in the last two laps wasn’t just him, it was vintage Bill, as well. As team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. whispered off-camera about Elliott to ESPN announcer Dave Burns, “He’s REALLY good.”

“Holy cow, man, that was crazy,” Elliott said in the kind of fashion you’d expect a guy who is still an 18-year-old high school senior to respond. “Here in the stands and at home on TV, that had to be fun to watch. I know it was fun to be part of (as a driver).

“It just worked out our way and away we went. … This is just unreal.”

With his win last week at Texas, Elliott becomes the seventh driver in Nationwide Series history to earn his first career wins in back-to-back fashion. Even more, in the first seven NNS races of his career, Elliott has two wins, another top-five, three top-10s and his worst finish thus far was 15th in the season opener at Daytona.

Even when Sadler got loose on the final lap and threatened to take out his young rival, the younger Elliott did exactly what his father used to do behind the wheel: kept the pedal mashed to the floor and hung on for dear life.

“I can’t believe it,” Elliott said. “I can’t believe last week (at Texas), much less here at Darlington. This truly is a dream come true.

“This is a place that I’ve already loved watching races (at), probably my favorite racetrack to watch a race at for a long, long time, and just to come and be a part of this race is unbelievable. But to come and win this thing is a feeling I’ll never forget.”

Darlington also carries the nickname of the Track Too Tough to Tame. But Elliott certainly tamed it with his impressive win.

You know what, maybe the Lady In Black just has a thing for the Elliott family. After all, in 52 career starts there, Chase’s father Bill compiled an outstanding record of five wins, 22 top-fives and 35 top-10 finishes.

And with the way the younger Elliott drove more like his dad than an average 18-year-old kid Friday night, it proved without a doubt that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

Right, Lady in Black?

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

Photo: IndyCar
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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

Follow@KyleMLavigne