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The two faces of NASCAR

In August 1991 and after 129 starts, Dale Jarrett finally took his first NASCAR Cup checkered flag. Up in the broadcast booth his dad, legendary driver Ned Jarrett, was overcome with joy over his son’s victory. As ESPN kept showing the checkered flag replay, the more emotional the elder Jarrett became until broadcast partner, the late Benny Parsons, finally blurted out, “He’s not going to lose it on the replay, Ned.”

I thought about that ‘passing of the torch’ moment last Sunday when 22-year-old Chase Elliott – son of the legendary Bill Elliott – claimed his first checkered flag at Watkins Glen, NY after 99 starts and eight career second-place finishes.

Some facts of note: Ironically, both father and son each won their first race driving car Number-9: Bill in a Ford for Harry Melling and Chase in a Rick Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Each also had eight runner-up finishes before their first career wins and both earned that first trip to Victory Lane on road courses; Bill’s came at the old Riverside road course on the last race of the 1993 season.

The younger Elliott also missed out on becoming the youngest driver to win a race this season by just five races. Erik Jones, who is a few months younger than Elliott, became the youngest driver to win this year when he took the checkered flag at Daytona back in July.

Elliott’s win is also the 250th win for Hendrick Motorsports and snaps a 36-race winless streak for the team. A bit awkward for this bunch, especially with four Cup cars racing every weekend. And it even took a Hendrick teammate to get Elliott to his Victory Lane celebration; not because he was lost on where to go, but because he ran out of gas and Jimmie Johnson was nice enough to give him a push.

Now he’s got one more thing to outshine his dad with: becoming NASCAR’s most popular driver.

There’s a lot of pressure on the younger Elliott to be the new ‘face’ of NASCAR. Nothing against Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Austin Dillon, or even Jones, but there’s something about Elliott that’s the ‘oomph’ this sport needs. Granted, Dale Jr. hasn’t been gone that long, but remember: he held down the most popular spot 15 times.

Know who else did? Bill Elliott.

In fact, ‘Awesome Bill from Dawsonville’ won it 16 times; and it might have been 19 times had it not been interrupted twice by Darrell Waltrip and the posthumous award to the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in ’01, the year he was killed.

Young Elliott’s got the right face to carry things in stock car racing to the next level: the charm, the charisma, the sponsorship, and now he’s even winning races.

The other ‘face’ of NASCAR this week was that mug-shot of chairman and CEO Brian France after his DUI arrest in Long Island, NY Sunday night. Monday, he – and the sport – did the right thing by stepping away for a while. Here’s hoping he gets help and gets better.

For a lot of folks, France is NASCAR’s punching bag, and some even feel he’s part of the problem the attendance and ratings are down. That he’s more Broadway than Broad Street. That he inherited his sport instead of the roll-your-sleeves up, rough-n-tumble built from the ground up way of creating an empire.

France doesn’t get the credit I feel he deserves for giving his sport a shot in the arm with the ‘playoff system.’ Maybe old-schoolers don’t like it – but every other major sport has theirs. And that’s what I also liked about France: he had the tough and unenviable task of trying to take a clean-cut Southern sport with no work stoppages, no kneeling, no egomaniacal stars, and truly make it national. And he’s got to do it in this age of short attention span ‘Millennials.’

Two faces, one sport, and more importantly for those of us who are rooting for NASCAR’s ‘revival’: one direction – the only direction – that it has to go.

 

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.