Chase Elliot and Kyle Larson Foreshadow a Bright Future for NASCAR

After a thrilling finish on Friday night that saw 18-year-old Chase Elliot charge from 6th to 1st in the final two laps, it’s become obvious that NASCAR’s next youth movement will be fun to watch.

Everyone got a preview of that as Elliot one-upped his first career Nationwide Series win last week at Texas Motor Speedway by winning at Darlington Raceway in his first start at the track.

The rookie phenom got the show started early by qualifying 2nd for the VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 behind Kyle Busch – the Nationwide Series’ all-time, winningest driver. Elliot proved that his car was not just fast for one lap as he passed Busch for the lead before lap 40. Elliot dominated the middle portions of the race as Busch faded with handling issues.

But as Busch faded, a new comer emerged in Kyle Larson. Larson, who had to start in the rear of the field after damaging his car in qualifying, charged his way to 2nd with less than 70 laps to go.

A caution with less than 60 laps to go brought Elliot, Larson and the rest of the leaders to pit road. On pit road, Elliot dropped from 1st to 5th after having a slow pit stop while Busch remerged as the leader.

Little did the audience know that the lost track position would inevitably set up a spirited battle between Elliot and Larson.

With Busch in a commanding lead after a restart, Larson and Elliot began a furious battle for 2nd in the final 40 laps which saw Larson hang the back end of his car twice, while Elliot nearly lost his racecar when he entered turn 1 in a side-by-side battle. The intense contest lasted about 15 laps which saw Larson bounce off the wall twice while he tried to fend off Elliot. Elliot eventually got through Larson with about 25 laps to go when Larson nearly spun his racecar off turn 2.

Once in clean air, Elliot did reduce Busch’s lead by nearly half in the final laps, but it did appear that he was going to run out of time.

This changed when a caution flew with less than seven laps to go after a frustrated Larson – who faded to 5th on worn tires and a right side – spun out Tanner Berryhill who was already three laps down.

With tires being worn out, all the leaders pitted which saw Elliot Sadler and Larson leave in 1st and 2nd after changing two tires, while Busch and Elliot left in 3rd and 6th after getting four.

The frantic restart allowed Elliot to muscle his way from 6th to 2nd coming to the white flag. Elliot got to Sadler’s outside exiting turn 2 after Sadler got extremely loose off the corner and then made a clean pass as they entered turn 3.

“This is unbelievable. I couldn’t believe last week, much less here at Darlington,” Elliott said in victory lane. “The truly is a dream come true. This is a place I always loved watching races. It was probably my favorite place to watch a race as a fan for a long, long time. Just to come and be a part of this race is unbelievable, but to come and win this thing that’s a deal I’ll never forget.”

From a historical standpoint, the victory made Elliot the youngest driver in Nationwide Series history to win his second career race.

But from a spectator point of view, Elliot’s triumph in his first race at Darlington is simply unbelievable.

Known as the track ‘Too Tough to Tame‘, Darlington’s abrasive surface and narrow groove tests the concentration, will and patience of NASCAR’s most experienced drivers. So when rookies come for their first go-arounds, this track simply chews them up. To put in layman’s terms – rookies don’t win at Darlington.

And yet Elliot won.

Chase Elliot’s accomplishment Friday confirmed several notions. First, his win last week at Texas was no aberration or fluke. And second, the rookie has not been overhyped as he’s had to beat the best in the sport on back-to-back weeks in order to win consecutive races.

Even after their late-race battle, Larson – who went from 2nd to 6th at the finish – still congratulated his competitor, but also hinted that he now has to step up his game.

“Once again, congrats to Chase. That’s awesome,” Larson said. “I’m glad to see him get two in a row. Now I’m going to have to go get some.”

Whether they want to or not, Elliot and Larson are setting themselves up for the next great rivalry in the sport. But when one looks closely, it’s not a coincidence that the two would eventually face off.

Both drivers have similar racing backgrounds. Their quick success in whichever series they’ve raced in has continued to raise the bar and increase the hype. Both have the speed and tenacity of rookies, but also race like 10-year veterans. And the results that both have acquired in the last month have been simply phenomenal.

At the moment, they seem destined to battle each other for the next 20 years.

Now, some would still argue that Elliot and Larson are extremely young and have only started their careers. They need more time to prove themselves and that is a valid point. They have a ways to go to reach the levels of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.

But the skill and car control they displayed Friday night is nothing short of amazing.

Every decade hundreds if not thousands of new drivers enter the NASCAR ranks to try to make a name for themselves. A few dozen make it to the three premiere series and even less make it to the very top. But of the multitude that try to make it, there are always a few that catch everyone’s attention.

In the 1980s it was Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace. In the 1990s it was Jeff Gordon, Davey Allison, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart. In the 2000s it was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch.

Now, with the new decade reaching its mid-way point, there are two names that keep popping up – Kyle Larson and Chase Elliot.

 

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