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.

April 5 in Motorsports History: Alex Zanardi’s amazing Long Beach rally

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Alex Zanardi entered the Long Beach Grand Prix on April 5, 1998 as the race’s defending champion and the series’ defending champion.

But the Italian didn’t seem a serious contender for much of the 105-lap event. Zanardi started 11th position and lost a lap early when he was involved in a multicar spin in the hairpin.

Alex Zanardi celebrates after winning the 1998 Grand Prix of Long Beach. Photo: Getty Images

But the race was still young, and despite emerging from the incident in 18th place, Zanardi slowly progressed through the field while battling radio problems that made communication difficult with his team.

With five laps remaining, Zanardi passed Dario Franchitti on the backstretch for second place and then focused in on leader Bryan Herta.

With two laps remaining, Zanardi made his move, making a daring pass on the inside of Herta in the Queen’s Hairpin (which no longer exists as the track layout was changed the following year).

The move was reminiscent of Zanardi’s famous last-lap move on the inside of Laguna Seca’s famed Corkscrew in 1996, which deprived Herta of his first CART victory.

Franchitti passed Herta as well, and Zanardi went on to clinch his first victory of the season.

“On a day when everything went wrong, we came back and won,” Zanardi said following the race. “I can’t explain it. It wasn’t until I saw Bryan ahead of me that I ever thought I had a shot at winning. It was amazing. I have no words to describe it.”

Following Long Beach, Zanadri won six more times in 1998 en route to his second and final CART championship.

Also on this date:

1992: Bobby Rahal led from start to finish to win the Valvoline 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. The win was the first of four victories for Rahal during his championship season.

2009: Ryan Briscoe won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first of three victories for the Aussie in 2009. The race was also the first IndyCar Series on Versus, which was rebranded as NBC Sports Network in 2012.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994