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DARLINGTON, S.C. -- This makes the 40th year I have come here covering races. Never have I seen anyone drive old Darlington Raceway better than Chase Elliott did Friday night.
Not David Pearson, the all-time winner here with 10 victories; not Dale Earnhardt with nine; not Jeff Gordon with seven; not Bobby Allison nor Bill Elliott (Chase's father) nor Darrell Waltrip nor Cale Yarborough, the five-time winners here.
Electrifying. Breathtaking. Dumbfounding. All those words are inadequate for the sight of the 18-year-old from Dawsonville, Ga., putting a race car breezily, easily into places you're not supposed to be able to go on this track, and not just getting away with it but making it look effortless.
There are two kinds of NASCAR ovals: Darlington and all the rest. This by consensus is the toughest place the drivers go all year. Every yard of the 1.366 miles is an adventure. The two sets of corners might as well be two different tracks. The small end is a sudden turnaround at high speed, and the large end is deceptively sweeping with a wall that juts out to bite you for the slightest bobble.
The laps I've seen here number somewhere north of 25,000. And I'm not sure I've seen any driven as well as Chase Elliott's last lap to win the Nationwide race Friday night.
He passed Elliott Sadler on the high side, where there isn't room, yet somehow made that Camaro slither unscathed between Sadler's car and the jutting wall with which the Lady in Black, so typically, tried to snatch him.
He deftly danced right through, and took the checkered flag, and in the aftermath the Lady herself seemed somehow smitten, awed, empty, swooning, star-struck at the dark-haired youth who'd swirled and twirled her around so, on an April night when he was missing his senior prom in the Atlanta suburbs.
But the last lap was just the capper, after he'd driven from fifth to second in the first of the final two laps after the final restart. Throughout the race he sometimes made easy work of Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano.
At one point late, he got into a fender-banging duel with the driver who until just the other day had been NASCAR's prodigy of prodigies, bright hope of bright hopes, Kyle Larson. They slammed and banged and got each other sideways, but Elliott, cool as his father ever was, let Larson go and waited for another time. Larson continued to get near or into trouble with others. Elliott just sailed on.
Only three weeks ago, when Larson won spectacularly over Harvick, Busch, et al. in California, he shot to the fore of the future of NASCAR.
Already Larson has been passed, now that Elliott has scored a dramatic first career Nationwide win at Texas a week ago, and a vastly more dramatic second straight here.
And here's the kicker: Elliott had never driven a lap here before Thursday -- didn't even remember the last time he'd been here, as a little boy, with his father.
Just last week I'd sat with him over in Dawsonville, working on a feature story that will run next week, and asked how he might prepare for this place. Maybe watch some video of Kyle Busch running here, he said, because Rowdy of all people seemed to have this place figured out best.
It was Rowdy he was running down when the final caution came out Friday night. It was Rowdy he passed easily on the way to the white flag, after Chase's crew had given him a lousy pit stop that got him out sixth.
As Chase exited the pits, his crew chief, Greg Ives, grasped his head with both hands in dismay at how they'd let the youth down.
Oh, well. Nobody could come here the first time and master this place. Surely, now, nobody could drive right through the pack after a terrible pit stop to win, let alone make it look effortless.
Nobody. Until Chase Elliott.