Column: Chase Elliott’s promotion perfectly timed for NASCAR

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For the second consecutive year, the final day of the Sprint Cup Media Tour centered around a Chase.

For the second consecutive year, it was the biggest story of a typically bland week marked by the incessant regurgitation of smiley-faced clichés and platitudes about an upcoming season.

For the second consecutive year, everyone knew the news was coming – though in this case, the timing wasn’t certain.

Yet it couldn’t have been better.

Chase Elliott, the rising star and scion of an illustrious stock-car racing family, was named Thursday to supplant Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet next season.

His father, who still is the most famous member of the family, will be inducted Friday into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, honoring the Dickensian legend of “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.”

The salute to the immensely appealing Bill Elliott (voted a 13-time most popular driver) inextricably will be linked to the coming-out party for Chase Elliott, the 2014 Xfinity Series champion who seems as polished at 19 as his media-shy father ever was.

In the rich annals of NASCAR’s knack for enjoying the opportune – Richard Petty notching his 200th victory with President Ronald Reagan in attendance, Dale Earnhardt Jr. triumphing at Daytona International Speedway in the first race after his father’s death there, Gordon winning the debut of NASCAR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – this qualifies as another serendipitous moment.

After a week of hand-wringing since Gordon’s retirement announcement about how and where the next generation might emerge in the wake of a superstar’s departure, here was the answer.

Elliott’s ascendance to Gordon’s ride was far from stunning. He has been under contract to Hendrick Motorsports since 2011, and even before he made his NASCAR national series debut in 2013, Rick Hendrick said he already was confident enough to put Elliott in a Sprint Cup car.

His breakthrough 2014 season – becoming the youngest champion in NASCAR history while winning three times as a rookie in the No. 9 Chevrolet fielded by Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports – made it a lead-pipe cinch that he was ticketed for a first-tier ride with Hendrick.

But the rollout of Elliott’s promotion – and whether he’d be tabbed to replace Gordon (Hendrick could have waited another season and tried to maneuver into picking off another star) – wasn’t certain.

Now it makes perfect sense – particularly for NASCAR, which could use a feel-good story after an offseason blemished by a few salacious headlines.

Last year, NASCAR closed the Media Tour with the unveiling of its new Chase for the Sprint Cup format. While the its debut eventually was met by a thrilling finish in the 2014 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the revamping of the Chase lingered as a polarizing storyline.

It’s hard to make the case, though, that Elliott’s news wasn’t overwhelmingly positive, if not universally well-received (aside from the few remaining boo-birds who still are living to ridicule and taunt anything involving Gordon since the four-time series champion burst onto the scene 20 years ago).

For the second consecutive year, a Chase is the Media Tour’s indelible memory.

But this time, the rewards will be reaped much more quickly for NASCAR.

Top Fuel driver Austin Prock earns 2019 NHRA top rookie honors

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Having just completed a promising first year in NHRA Top Fuel competition, Austin Prock is on the road to even greater drag racing success in his career.

That’s why it’s not surprising that Prock was named the winner of the 2019 Auto Club Road to the Future Award during Monday night’s annual NHRA Awards dinner at the Ray Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California.

The Road to the Future Award is NHRA’s version of Rookie of the Year, and Prock was among the brightest young stars on the circuit this past season, including winning his first national event at the Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways in suburban Seattle, the 16th race on the 24-race schedule.

What made that first win all the more sweeter is it came at the same event that his boss, legendary 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, captured his milestone 150th career win.

One month ago, Prock set a personal best run of 3.688 seconds at 334.40 mph over veteran driver Doug Kalitta in the first round of eliminations at the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals three weeks ago in Ennis, Texas (suburban Dallas).

“I am proud of the season this Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist team put together,” Prock said in a media release. “My guys worked their asses off all season long to give me the opportunity to win the Auto Club Road the Future Award. I couldn’t have done it without them.

“I would have never been here without John Force and Robert Hight (president of John Force Racing). They gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dream and I owe the world to them. I hope I made them proud.”

Prock became only the 10th rookie in the history of the NHRA pro ranks to both win a race in their first season and also go on to win the Road to the Future award. He also was the 13th rookie in the sport’s history to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s six race playoffs.

Prock becomes the sixth John Force Racing driver to earn the Road to the Future Award, joining Tony Pedregon (1996), Hight (2005), Ashley Force-Hood (2007), Mike Neff (2008), Courtney Force (2012) and Brittany Force (2013).

Austin Prock is the son of veteran crew chief Jimmy Prock, who tuned Hight to his third career NHRA Funny Car championship this past Sunday.

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