By Cole Cusumano
If you had tried to scribe a better conclusion to the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season for Hendrick Motorsports, it probably wouldn’t be possible.
The once prestigious organization had been on a backslide for a handful of years and with the departure of Jimmie Johnson following the finale at Phoenix Raceway, there was widespread optimism instilled in the fresh-faced lineup, but still an element of uncertainty. The worry wasn’t if success would come, but when.
The scene had been set. NASCAR would be rolling the credits on Johnson’s dynasty, a stretch of dominance that spawned seven championships, 83 wins and a legacy of class. All of this was to be taken with him, leaving the storied franchise with a combined 19 victories and no titles among the active roster of young drivers in 2021 — but there was a chance at an alternate ending.
Chase Elliott was serving as the sole representation of Hendrick Motorsports in the Championship 4. The 24-year-old had a shot at becoming the youngest driver to win a title since the legend he succeeded, Jeff Gordon, won it in 1995.
The No. 9 team was met with adversity before the green flag dropped on the big day, when they failed inspection twice and had to start from the rear of the field. This would presumably make the path to glory difficult, but it wasn’t unheard of. In fact, Elliott’s teammate, Johnson, successfully achieved this feat during his final title-run in 2016 when he not only won his seventh championship, but his first race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“That’s what went through my mind today when I heard they were going to the back,” Johnson told POPULAR SPEED. “I sent Alan (Gustafson) and Chase a text and reminded them that I won a championship that way. 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 what I needed to do. He said, ‘I hope that’s how it goes today.’ And it did.”
Not only did Elliott accomplish what his mentor did in his first Championship attempt, he did so materfully. The racing prodigy surged into the top-10 at the time the competition caution flew on Lap 30 and went on to lead a race-high 153 laps.
Although not nearly at the extent of Johnson’s winless drought in Miami, Phoenix had also been a place that eluded Elliott throughout his young Cup career. The two-time most popular driver delivered this dominant performance with his No. 9 dressed in neon in homage to his teammate’s departure.
To add another element of emotion and destiny to the mix Johnson was the highest finishing non-title contender and capped off his career with one of his most competitive showings of 2020 with a top-five finish.
“I guess we should just change our colors to neon all the time,” Elliott said. “Today I feel like symbolized a lot of great things, and I feel like there’s a lot of things from today I’ll look back on in a week or a month or a year, and I’ll be like, ‘dang, that was really cool.’ That being one of them for sure.
“Jimmie and I have shared some really cool moments on track, and they’ve been in really big moments of my career. The moment we shared after Watkins Glen, the road to that first win. And then for the greatest of all time to be kind of hanging it up today and to win a championship on that day, I mean, that’s just a really cool thing.
“As a fan of his, number one, and as a person that’s looked up to Jimmie in many ways over the years, I’m not sure I could have dreamt that any better.”
At the conclusion of the Season Finale 500, Elliott and Johnson met at the start/finish line where they locked their Camaros door-to-door and shared a moment of elation accompanied by shouting. Upon exiting their rides, they were met by team owner, Rick Hendrick — who hadn’t seen his drivers since before the pandemic — in which all three Champions embraced in an emotional group hug.
By all accounts, it very much felt like a passing of the torch from one generation to the next. Suddenly, Hendrick Motorsports was back on top once again, the NASCAR world rejoiced and we got a sense of assurance for the legendary organization future and the sport.
“I thought it was pretty cool the way they met each other on the track at the end of the race,” Hendrick said. “Jimmie’s last race is Chase’s first championship, and to see those two guys embrace, that was really cool. I think it means a lot to our whole organization. It was a special moment.”
Elliott ended 2020 with back-to-back victories and extended his single-season career total to five. He also became the first driver since his father, Bill, in 1988 to win the Most Popular Driver award and win Championship in the year prior.
In becoming the third-youngest Champion in Cup Series history, both Elliott and Gustafson established themselves as leaders at Hendrick Motorsports when the team needed it most. The future of NASCAR is blindingly bright, and at 24 years old, you get the feeling that Elliott is just getting started.
“ 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.
“For him to have a championship at this age and being so young, there’s no telling what the win total will be for him or his championship total.”
Elliott has a chance to become the face of NASCAR — many would even argue he is with this achievement. But he could be well on his way to shaping the future of the sport on a deeper level, much like his predecessor, Gordon.
The youth movement that began to be implemented a half-decade ago appears to be finally taking shape and there’s no telling what this could do for the next generation of fans. Only time will tell, but expect Elliott to be an empowering presence in NASCAR for years to come.
Categories: Interview, NASCAR Cup Series
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