TALLADEGA, Ala. – To quote from the “Citizen Kane” of racing movies, set in this very neck of the ’Bama piney woods:
“If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
That, of course, is the tao of Ricky Bobby, as revealed in “Talladega Nights.” It is a most appropriate thought here as Chase Elliott suits up for his weekend at the Alabama 500. This is the fifth race of the 10-race Monster Energy NASCAR playoffs. In three of the previous four, Elliott, son of Bill, has finished second.
Seconds are pretty good. They have boosted the whippersnapper from Dawsonville up the playoff ladder and kept him viable for a series championship even as he has yet to win his first race. They have positioned him above all the other big names of his Hendrick Motorsports team – fourth in this round of 12 while Jimmie Johnson (seventh) teeters on elimination and Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. already have fallen off that ledge.
At the same time, seconds stink.
These runner-up finishes have taken on a variety of patinas. Two weeks ago at Dover, when he was overtaken by Kyle Busch on the penultimate lap – after having led for 138 laps – Elliott was inconsolable. His car was fine, but he was a wreck.
“I should have done something different,” he solemnly said afterward.
But other seconds at Chicago and Charlotte were much easier to digest because victory wasn’t so obviously within his grasp. After his most recent second in Charlotte, Elliott was downright optimistic: “You hope that we can keep running like we are. If we can, then opportunities will definitely be there. If we capitalize on them, hopefully we'll have our day.”
Consistency has its rewards out here. But it can’t replace the experience of winning. That is the bottom-line expectation for Bill Elliott’s kid. He’s only 21, has 71 Monster Energy-level races behind him, 19 career top-five finishes. But no checkered flags. And that starts to wear on a driver of his pedigree.
Sooner or later, if you ain’t first, you’re last.
The math of this playoff system requires more effort than I’m willing to exert. But this much is a certainty: Elliott would find himself in a very good position with a race victory here Sunday.
"I would rather have a W and not have to play that game,” he said Friday, indicating he, too, has little use for deciphering his points standing. “But you are going to go and push every week, and if a win is in your future, great. That certainly is a huge help as we go through these rounds. As we all know, the win trumps everything.
“I think consistency will probably get you through this cut round that we are in (down to eight contenders). I don't know that you have to win to get to Homestead (the championship race), but I would say you are going to have to run pretty doggone good, and you are going to have to have multiple chances to win if you want to make it through with the rest of those guys."
Talladega, where Bill Elliott holds NASCAR’s qualifying speed record (212.809), has treated his son with equal measures of respect and disdain. Chase won the pole and finished fifth his first time running with the big boys here last year. In the spring race at Talladega, he went airborne after getting caught up in an 18-car wreck.
One lofty goal for Sunday: “Just keep all four (tires) on the ground this time,” he said.
Another would be to do Ricky Bobby proud.