Lasting bonds, lasting image: Elliott's rise, Johnson's farewell intersect in Phoenix celebration

Zack Albert
·6 min read

Chase Elliott was just shy of 8 years old when the photo was taken, but it’s etched in his memory.

In the picture, his 48-year-old father — NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott — had just prevailed at Rockingham Speedway for what wound up being the last of his 44 big-league victories. At the other end of career spectrums, 31-year-old Matt Kenseth was celebrating a first, having accumulated enough points to clinch the 2003 Cup Series championship.

The two careers were already intertwined in a way, with Kenseth making his Cup debut in 1998 as a fill-in for Elliott, who withdrew from Dover’s race weekend after the death of his father. Kenseth drove the car to an impressive sixth-place finish. Five years later, game recognized game at Rockingham as Kenseth and the elder Elliott high-fived from their cars after the checkered flag.

That photo sat in Bill Elliott’s office for years, leaving a memory that his son hoped to one day re-enact. Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, with longtime teammate Jimmie Johnson celebrating the end of his full-time run in NASCAR, Chase Elliott got his chance.

RELATED: Elliott hoists first title | Race results

“I saw Jimmie kind of taking his victory lap up there and that picture flashed in my head,” Elliott said Sunday, one day shy of the photo’s 17th anniversary. “And I was like, damn, that would be super, super cool to recreate that moment. Yeah, we did. I really hope somebody took that picture because that was really cool. I hope somebody got it.”

Christian Petersen | Getty Images
Christian Petersen | Getty Images

Chase Elliott now has his own picture, his own championship and all the symbolism that goes with the image after his victory in Sunday’s Season Finale 500. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet will be inherited by Alex Bowman next season, but the more direct passing of the baton — for both Hendrick Motorsports and the series in general — came Sunday from a past seven-time champion to the sport’s newest champ.

The moment came with unintelligible screaming from their cars, a euphoric outpouring of mutual joy with one career ending and another just beginning to soar. “Can you believe it?!” Johnson recalled Elliott saying through the noise.

“Just so happy for him,” Johnson said. “I’m sure I was saying something along those lines, just how happy I am for him. I saw him on track and left a big donut on the side of his car. I was able to get a high‑five as he was coming around to do burnouts. And I was waving good‑bye. So certainly a couple cool moments.”

The bond for the two drivers runs through Rick Hendrick, the venerable team owner who took a chance on both. It was Hendrick who rolled the dice on Johnson’s Cup Series career, which stemmed from a foundation in off-roading and a moderately successful Xfinity Series tenure. He took his cues from Jeff Gordon and was rewarded with seven championships. More than that, his investment helped produce a driver whose impact and stature as an ambassador for stock-car racing created — with Gordon — another bedrock pillar for his organization.

MORE: Johnson: ‘My bucket is full’

It was also Hendrick who made a speculative gamble on signing Chase Elliott as a 14-year-old prospect. Those scouting cues came from fellow owner James Finch, who happened to mention, have you seen Chase Elliott drive? … Man, he’s whipping all these guys on dirt. The conversation led him seek out videos of Elliott’s earliest races and to reach out to the teenager’s parents. He was rewarded 10 years later with NASCAR’s newest title winner, an heir to the Most Popular Driver crown and a driver with a career of possibilities ahead of him.

Sunday’s image made the connection between both careers a straight line.

“Jimmie is really special to us, like part of our family,” Hendrick said. “Chase is the new kid coming along ‑‑ not a kid, but… He’s a champion now. It was a special moment to see those two guys embrace.” Hendrick then paused, and his reflex as a fiscally responsible team owner temporarily kicked in. “I think they tore the cars up running into each other out there a little bit,” he added, “but it was a special time and a special place.”

Johnson’s memories run deep as well. He recalled his long-established friendship with the Elliotts, snowboarding with Bill in Colorado years ago as Chase, a quiet grade-schooler on skis, tagged along. His father’s racing career was winding down, but Johnson was already watching his son grow.

Elliott’s eventual rise to NASCAR’s top tour created another lasting image with Johnson. After Elliott’s first Cup Series victory at Watkins Glen in 2018, his No. 9 Chevrolet sputtered out of fuel on the cool-down lap. Ever the helpful teammate, Johnson offered a push back to pit road.

RELATED: Chase Elliott through the years

Johnson’s helpful nature delivered again on Sunday with a final word of encouragement. After two failed trips through pre-race inspection, Elliott’s car was forced to drop to the rear of the field for the start — an unexpected hurdle for his title quest. Upon hearing the development, Johnson reminded Elliott that his record-tying seventh championship in 2016 came under similar circumstances, a start at the back of the pack that still resulted in a clinching race victory.

Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

“I shared that with him, and he smiled and he said, 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. I’m glad it worked out for him.”

The day also worked out for Johnson with an inspiring fifth-place finish — best in class among the non-title-eligible drivers. When nudged by crew chief Cliff Daniels to join Elliott in a celebratory dual burnout, Johnson demurred. “Those donuts are for Chase,” he radioed back.

It didn’t stop the two from sharing one last moment as teammates, creating an image that may one day compete for wall space with the 2003 picture in Bill Elliott’s office.

“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,” Chase Elliott said. “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.”