Chase Elliott becomes youngest NASCAR champion, captures final Nationwide Series crown

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If he’s this good at 18, what will Chase Elliott be like 10 years from now?

Elliott became the youngest champion in NASCAR history Saturday, finishing fifth in the DAV 200 – Honoring America’s Veterans at Phoenix International Raceway, to win the 2014 and final Nationwide Series championship (the series will become known as the Xfinity Series starting in 2015).

“Honestly, I’m just in disbelief,” Chase Elliott told ESPN. “I don’t know what to think.

“I’ve never been a part of anything like this. Just to have the opportunity to work with a group of guys like we’ve had this year has just been a blessing for me to be here. I really don’t know how to think or what to feel right now.”

The younger Elliott joins his father, NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee-elect Bill, as a national champion. Bill, of course, won the 1988 Sprint Cup championship.

The younger Elliott wasn’t even born when his father won his championship. But in typical like father, like son response, the younger Elliott isn’t quite done yet.

“This has been just a heck of a year,” Chase Elliott said. “We’d like to have another win next week at Homestead. We’ll give it our best shot.”

The Elliott’s become the fifth father-son champions in NASCAR history:

* Ned Jarrett won two Sprint Cup championships, while son Dale won one title.

* Lee Petty won three Cup titles, son Richard won a record-tying seven.

* David Pearson won three Cup crowns, son Larry two Nationwide Series titles.

* The late Dale Earnhardt won a record-tying seven Cup titles, son Dale Jr. won two NNS crowns.

And now the Elliotts join the illustrious list.

“To come into this season and have the incredible year this kid has been totally beyond belief,” proud papa Bill said of his son. “I just hope he keeps his head screwed on good and straight.

“He’s a very smart driver and individual and he really knows what he wants out of a race car. That’s 90 percent of the game. If he can keep going in that direction, he’ll be as good as they come.”

Mother Cindy called her son’s title “unbelievable.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Cindy Elliott said. “I asked Bill this morning did he ever imagine in his wildest dreams that we’d be going to the racetrack today and your son could win a NASCAR championship?

“He said, ‘No, never in my wildest dreams.’ For his dreams to have come true today, it’s just indescribable.”

When father and son Elliott decided to try their hand at racing in the Nationwide Series at the end of last season, they started with nothing.

But at the same time, they were in the right place at the right time in several instances.

First, NAPA had just left Michael Waltrip Racing after a scandal at MWR and was looking for a new, hot young driver.

Next, Rick Hendrick wanted to work with his driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to bring the young and relatively untested Chase to Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports.

With the team and sponsor in place, and with crew chief Greg Ives on board, the team came into the 2014 season with a lot of unknowns.

It ends the season with one VERY big known factor, though, that a team that didn’t even exist a year ago came all the way up through the ranks to win the championship.

“I’m so in disbelief,” Chase Elliott said. “I don’t know how to feel right now. I cannot believe it. I really cannot. I’m just in disbelief. This is a testament to the guys on this team. They bring their A game every week.”

To his credit, Chase also singled out teammate Regan Smith, who was his closest challenger for the championship.

“I really appreciate Regan with the way he raced me all year,” Chase said. “Just a super classy guy and it’s been a lot of fun racing him this season.”

Hendrick probably summed up Elliott’s rise to the championship the best:

“A year ago, we were just trying to figure out what to do,” Hendrick said after Saturday’s race. “… Man, what a young man. What a racer he is. It’s just really neat to be a part of history.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: Top 10 storylines of the 2019 season

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The 2019 NHRA season wound up being one where there was almost as much news and highlights made off the drag strip as on it.

That was the case in two of the top four storylines for the recently completed season, with the top story occurring even before the first pass down a drag strip in competition took place.

We’ve also included a poll for you to vote and see if you agree with our picks or not.

Here’s how our top 10 looks:

1. A Force-ful departure: Just two weeks before the 2019 season was due to open, Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time champion John Force, stunned the drag racing world by announcing she was taking a hiatus from the sport – although she insisted she was not retiring. The wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, Force turned over her high dollar Advance Auto Parts sponsorship to sister and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, who had previously been sponsored by Monster Energy. Courtney Force became the second high-profile female drag racer to step away from the sport in just over a year, joining fellow Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who went on hiatus after the 2017 season. This past October, DeJoria announced she would return to full-time NHRA competition in 2020. But as for Courtney, she remains on hiatus for at least the time being.

2. Torrence’s Texas two-step: Proud Texas native Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in 2019, winning nine races (including eight in a nine-race stretch). While Torrence enjoyed an outstanding season in 2018, winning 11 races and becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, he won just one playoff race in 2019. But he still managed to earn just enough points to hold off his closest rival, Doug Kalitta, by a mere three points for the second championship. Also of note: Steve’s father Billy finished a career-best fifth in the final standings, even though he competed in just 16 of the season’s 24 national events.

3. What happened to ‘The Sarge’? Tony Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins. But he was essentially AWOL in 2019, failing to compete in even one race. The reason: sponsorship. Or more precisely, lack thereof. The U.S. Army, which had sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years – which prompted him to adopt the colorful nickname of “The Sarge” pulled its funding after the 2018 season, leaving Schumacher without a fully-funded ride for 2019. Rather than try to race piecemeal from race to race with limited sponsorship, the son of team owner Don Schumacher decided to watch the season from the sidelines. How Schumacher could not attract a new big dollar sponsor, given his domination and success in the Top Fuel class, is almost unfathomable. Unfortunately, it’s looking like Schumacher – who turns 50 on Christmas Day – may remain sidelined in 2020.

John Force

4. A Force to be reckoned with once again: Even though he fell short of adding to his record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, the 2019 season was definitely one of resurgence for John Force, the sport’s winningest and most popular driver ever. Force, who turned 70 years old in May, isn’t letting age slow him down, earning two wins during the season – including a milestone 150th Funny Car victory of his career – and finished fourth in the standings (up from ninth in 2018, seventh in 2017, and his best finish since he ended up fourth in 2016).

Robert Hight

5. At the Hight of his success: Robert Hight isn’t flashy or verbose as his boss, John Force. But when he’s not working as president of John Force Racing, the soft-spoken Hight has become one of the premier drivers in Funny Car history. In 2019, he earned his third Funny Car championship – his second in the last three seasons and third since 2009. Along the way, he captured six wins, was runner-up three other times, reached the semifinals five times and led all drivers as the No. 1 qualifier for eight races (a full one-third of the season). This was perhaps the most dominant championship of all for Hight, including leading the Funny Car standings for 23 of the 24-race season.

Erica Enders

6. Erica’s baaaaccckkkk: Erica Enders is back on top of her game, and on top of the Pro Stock category, earning her third championship in the last six seasons (and first since 2015). Admittedly, her championship came in the first year of a shortened Pro Stock schedule, having been cut from a full 24 races to just 18. Still, the Texas native won two races, finished runner-up three other times and reached the semifinals four other times. Also of note, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, five-time Pro Stoc champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., came oh, so close to winning his sixth title, finishing just 21 points behind Enders in the final standings.

Doug Kalitta

7. What does he have to do to win first championship? Doug Kalitta came the closest he ever has to earning the first Top Fuel championship of his 20-year drag racing career, finishing just three points behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel rankings. It was almost heartbreaking as Kalitta seemingly did everything he needed to do to win the championship, including winning the season-ending race in Pomona, California, one of three wins he earned (as well as two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings). Kalitta began the season with a win at Pomona, as well. But Torrence came into the season-ending event at Pomona with just enough of a lead (and reached the semifinals) to hold off Kalitta’s challenge. How close was Kalitta from winning the championship? If he had advanced one more round in any of the six playoff races, he would have bested Torrence. Unfortunately, in a sense, Kalitta – nephew of legendary NHRA team owner and racer Connie Kalitta – has become the Mark Martin of NHRA Top Fuel: always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it comes to winning a championship. But there’s still hope, Kalitta fans: he’s going to give it another try in 2020. Maybe that will be his year – finally.

Andrew Hines

8. He’s one heck of an easy rider: Andrew Hines made it look easy in 2019 – although it was far from it – when he earned his sixth career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship (and first since 2015). Son of past PSM champion Byron Hines, Andrew Hines enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons ever of his career — not to mention one of the most dominating seasons in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category — winning eight of the 16 PSM events contested, along with earning two runner-up and three semifinal finishes. Hines held off 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie by 26 points and 2018 champ Matt Smith by 46 points.

JR Todd

9. What a difference a year makes: JR Todd had an exceptional season in 2018, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Not surprisingly, the Indiana native went on to win the Funny Car championship that season for Kalitta Motorsports. But one year later, Todd was seemingly an afterthought when it came to challenging for the Funny Car crown once again. For as good as he was in 2018, Todd struggled through much of the 2019 season with just one win, three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes, ultimately finishing seventh in the standings, a distant 246 points behind series champ Robert Hight, who was second to Todd in 2018.

Austin Prock

10. Strong start for sport’s top rookie: When your father is renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Such is the case of Austin Prock, who finished his first season in Top Fuel by earning NHRA’s rookie of the year honors. The younger Prock finished eighth in the Top Fuel season standings, including one win and five semifinal finishes driving for John Force Racing. Ironically, he finished one spot higher than three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who had a rough season, finishing ninth in the standings, with no wins, two runner-up showings and reached the semifinals just five times.

Follow @JerryBonkowski