Passing the torch: Elliott ascends NASCAR ranks as Johnson makes his exit

By Alex Andrejev
Charlotte Observer
Chase Elliott celebrates winning the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series after winning the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway.

AVONDALE, Ariz. – The high-five between Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott was more than the split-second touch of driving gloves.

Not because there were particularly memorable words spoken in that moment – Elliott said the two drivers were "just screaming" through the windows of their Chevrolet cars – as he headed for his victory donuts and Johnson made his final lap around the track as a full-time NASCAR racer. But the gesture was important because it symbolized a generational transition of greatness.

Elliott had just won his first championship in the sport's top series and Johnson had just closed a career in which he won seven of those titles. They were driving in opposite directions and stopped when their cars passed each other on the track at Phoenix Raceway Sunday night, arms outstretched for a brief congratulations before the evening of celebration.

Johnson, 45, wasn't holding a torch to hand to his 24-year-old Hendrick Motorsports teammate, but it was easy to imagine he was.

"I'm so happy for that guy," Johnson said. "Great friend, great family."

Johnson recalled going snowboarding in Colorado with Elliott's father, NASCAR Hall of Fame member and 1988 champion Bill Elliott, along with a young Chase Elliott.

"Chase was maybe eight years old, something like that, on skis, super quiet, wouldn't say much," Johnson said. "To watch him grow up and to be around him and to give him some advice from time to time has really been meaningful for me."

The quiet eight-year-old grew into an ambitious teenager, who never witnessed his father make 11-win tears like he did in the 80s, but who still wanted to emulate those moments from the stories and photos. Chase Elliott instead grew up watching drivers like Tony Stewart and Johnson win an insane number of races and championships. Johnson won five titles in a row between 2006 and 2010, then added two more to his legacy in 2013 and 2016.

"To join them on the champion list, that's why it's unreal," Elliott said. "Because that stuff was larger than life to me and I just can't wrap my head around, like fathom, the fact that I'm on the same list as some of them."

Elliott was hardly winning races running late models at the start of his driving career, but he showed promise and landed a deal with Hendrick Motorsports after word of Elliott's potential got around to HMS owner Rick Hendrick.

"I think it was a combination of skill, pedigree and just a sharp young man," Hendrick said.

In 2014, NAPA Autoparts signed a sponsorship deal that allowed Elliott to run a full Xfinity season. He won the series championship that year, but before the deal came together, he said he considered an alternative path and applied to college at the University of North Georgia. (Yes, he said, he got in.)

"I've never felt the pressure or the need to (become a driver) as far as my dad goes," Elliott said. "He's given me the opportunity to be my own person and to grow and to build and learn, sometimes learn the hard way."

But maybe there's something to be said about destiny or fate.

"Just so many stars aligned," Elliott said.

On the night of his first Cup championship appearance and his first Cup championship, Elliott teared up in his car after crossing the finish line ahead of the three other Championship 4 drivers, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, all accomplished veterans of the sport whose average age is 11 years older than Elliott's age.

Elliott hugged Johnson and Hendrick in Victory Lane. It was the first time Johnson saw Hendrick in person since March. Elliott also hugged his mom and dad, who were among the few names on a guest list shortened by the pandemic. He took a call from Jeff Gordon, who didn't make the trip to save a spot on that list. He held his massive trophy up to the fans, most of whom weren't at the track since attendance was limited by the virus, which cast a shadow on the year but did not mute Elliott's joy on November 8.

Of the fans that were there, it was clear many favored Elliott, the sport's Most Popular Driver. Before the race, the No. 9 team was hit with a penalty that sent Elliott from the pole position to the back of the field for the green flag. The news was announced over the track speaker and gasps could be heard far and wide. It was the most dramatic storyline of what was otherwise a fairly mild race.

The penalty was hardly a factor still. If anything, it served as another cosmic blessing. Johnson said he sent Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson a text before the start of the race reminding them that he won his last championship starting from the back.

"I reminded him I've been there," Johnson said. "Of the championships I've won coming from the back, I had less nervous energy in my body when I took the green flag and it was very easy to do what I needed to do."

Johnson said that when he shared that with Elliott, his teammate smiled and replied, "I hope that's how it goes today."

"And it did," Johnson said. "We didn't think of it as a passing of the torch, but I tried to share some of my experience with him before the race. He doesn't need my help. He's plenty good on his own."

Praises like this were bestowed on Elliott all night, whether he heard them or not, including from Gustafson, who also won his first Cup championship Sunday and sent his driver a text late in the evening that read, "Hey, we are staying. Let's get this thing going." Elliott had started drinking beer long before then.

He was tagged on social media by his favorite baseball team, the Atlanta Braves. It was announced that he will be escorted on Monday afternoon through his hometown of Dawsonville, Georgia. Hendrick and Chevrolet couldn't say enough good things about their next star.

When asked who he was personally most excited to share the moment with, Elliott replied without hesitation: "Everybody!"

Johnson said he knew the feeling.

"A big moment like this really cements you in everybody's head as the real deal," Johnson said. "It's one thing to win races. It's one thing to be fast. But to get it all done and win races and be fast and win a championship is the most difficult thing to do in our sport."

Although he is transitioning out of NASCAR and into a part-time IndyCar schedule next season, it won't be long before Johnson is back on the track and even racing with Elliott again. Hendrick said his two championship drivers plan to enter the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

Hendrick seemed to let that news slip in the excitement of the moment, because when asked for details, he backtracked with a smile.

"Maybe I jumped the gun on that," Hendrick said coyly. "I'm not 100% sure. I heard a rumor."

Elliott later confirmed his plans, but added that the paperwork hasn't yet been signed. So although the final race of 2020 marked the exit of one of NASCAR's stars and the ascension of its next, there will be much more to come for both.

And they will have that fleeting moment, that split-second touch of driving gloves as a marker of the transition in memory and hopefully photograph. Elliott said he thought of a picture that sat in his parents' office as he drove up to Johnson. It was a photo of Bill Elliott high-fiving Matt Kenseth from his car after Kenseth won the championship and Elliott won the race at Rockingham in 2003.

Chase Elliott won his first championship and recreated the moment with Johnson.

"I'm not sure I could have sat down and drawn it up any better."