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Chase Elliott earns first Cup win, gets boost from Jimmie Johnson

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Bill Elliott on role helping son Chase (2:07)

Former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott speaks about his role as a spotter for his son Chase, who won at Watkins Glen on Sunday. (2:07)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Jimmie Johnson saw Chase Elliott stop on the backstretch after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International.

And he thought the obvious.

"I thought he was just partying on the backstretch," Johnson said.

If Elliott wanted to party on the backstretch, he would have every justification to do so. After 99 Cup series races, he shouldn't have had to wait another 2.44 miles to celebrate his first Cup triumph. It came on a day where fate finally seemed to go Elliott's way, as his top competition was challenged by fuel issues and he overcame running over a crew member on pit road.

But Elliott wasn't partying when he stopped his car. He had simply run out of gas during the cool-down lap. So Johnson gave him a push.

It wasn't the first time Johnson helped out Elliott since Elliott joined the Hendrick Motorsports stable on a full-time basis in 2016.

Johnson, a seven-time Cup champion, has served as more than just a hero to Elliott. During the winter when they both were in Colorado, Elliott and Johnson talked about the seven runner-up finishes in Elliott's first two NASCAR Cup series seasons.

"To see Chase get that first, he's such a good friend," Johnson said. "This winter, we had some beers and kind of relived when things slipped from him in some other races.

"To see him get it done, get that monkey off his back, I'm just so happy for him."

Elliott wouldn't talk about what was said. But he certainly felt that it played a role as he tried to hold off Martin Truex Jr. in the final laps.

"He and I were out in Colorado at the same time last year, and I had an opportunity to sit down with him and just talk about some of those disappointing days," Elliott said. "When you have a chance to talk to somebody like him about those days, that's certainly a character-building moment.

"They weren't over a lot of drinks, but they were still very meaningful and helpful to me. When you have not only a fellow racer, but a teammate and a guy who's done what he's done, take the time to lend me advice or just listen to what I had to say, that helps a lot. So, I just appreciate his friendship, and I'm looking forward to racing with him for hopefully years to come."

Elliott nearly gave away the win. He ended up blowing Turn 1 on the final circuit, but Truex's car sputtered as he ran out of gas, leaving Elliott to cruise -- as long as he didn't run out of gas -- to the win.

"I felt like I had a pretty nice gap, just don't mess up -- and I messed up, of course," Elliott said. "I had to knock it out of gear and I completely missed Turn 1 and luckily had a big enough gap that he couldn't get up next to me. ... [It was] just nice to win it straight up and it not be a fuel-mileage race.

"You can win these things a lot of different ways, but to actually go out there, run in the top two or three all day long and race the guy that's won the past two road races straight up for a victory at the end is very satisfying."

By the time of the race Sunday, Elliott had eight runner-up finishes in his career, the same as his Hall of Fame father, Bill. There was a race at Michigan where he blew it on a restart, the infamous battle with Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, and then there was Dover last year when Kyle Busch chased him down in the final laps.

It appeared Truex might do the same Sunday.

"You do everything you can do with inside your capabilities," Elliott crew chief Alan Gustafson said. "We all strive for greatness and everybody wants to do the best things possible, and you want to win the race or hit the 3-pointer at the buzzer or catch a touchdown, whatever it is.

"And when it doesn't go your way and you have those opportunities, sometimes that can be deflating."

Elliott needed more than just a strong car, enough gas and phenomenal road-racing skills to finally win a Cup race.

Kyle Busch had the lead on Lap 56 when his team failed to get fuel in the car. Crew chief Adam Stevens said either a fuel probe broke or the gasman didn't get it lined up and it wouldn't put fuel in the car. The team won't know until it takes the parts apart.

But it wasn't like Elliott didn't have problems, too. Tire changer Nick O'Dell failed to get across the front of the car by the time the pit stop ended, and Elliott ran over him.

Drivers are taught to go when told, and that crew members will find a way to get out of the way. O'Dell rolled over the hood of the car, landed on his butt and gave the "safe" sign.

"We actually had a discussion before the race, just kind of lighthearted and jokingly, I told Chase, 'We get in trouble for removing pit equipment, we don't get in trouble for moving people,'" O'Dell said. "We knew the choreography that we were running today was going to be close, similar to how a two-tire stop is, so he was under the impression of when the car drops, you go and I'll get out of the way.

"I just didn't get out of the way enough. ... [And then] I was trying to play it off. I really didn't know what happened. Once I figured out I was OK, I was like, 'All right, we're all good, we're safe.'"

NASCAR ruled that because the car didn't remove equipment from the pit box and pit crew members often cross into the adjacent box on a pit stop, that O'Dell didn't violate the rule on removing equipment from the pit box although O'Dell clearly had the pit gun in his hand as he was knocked into the stall in front of Elliott.

"I've been doing it 15 years and one thing I know is do not let go of the gun," O'Dell said. "If it goes with the car, you're in trouble. If you carry the gun, then it's considered controlled."

It was a judgment call from NASCAR, and one that seemed to make sense even if the wording of the rule would have given NASCAR the ability to penalize Chase.

While maybe slightly controversial, few would argue that Elliott hadn't done enough to earn a trophy in the Cup series. Few would have thought it would have taken 99 races for Elliott to win. Few would have thought Hendrick Motorsports would go on a 37-race winless streak before finally earning its 250th Cup victory.

"One thing I tried to beat in my head was that you don't run second eight times by luck and take it for what it is," Elliott said. "That's the truth, you just don't. You have to realize that you were in those positions for a reason. ... If you were in them at one point in time, you can get back to them and learn from whatever it was that prevented you from ultimately getting a win and try to correct it to do so.

"I learned a lot about myself the past couple years. I've learned a lot racing in general."

His father, Bill, remembered his experiences coming so close. And maybe more etched in his memory are those of his son's near-misses.

"You kind of look at the end of last year and we were so close to getting a win and getting that last few legs of the [playoffs], and he's done everything right and there was nothing really I felt like he did wrong," Bill Elliott said. "There's going to be days that circumstances play a part, good, bad or indifferent, and that's a part of the way the racing gods go, right, wrong or indifferent."

And that can be a good thing even if it isn't the preferred method.

"You get in this sport and you win too soon," Bill Elliott said, "then in your mind it becomes too easy. ... You learn a lot through that, you learn a lot about yourself."

That sounds so good in theory, but it has to be difficult. That's why Gustafson wouldn't call it just a relief to win.

"At the end of the day, you've got to take some solace in what you do, and the fact that you gave it your best and learned from it and moved on -- and certainly he has and will continue to do that," Gustafson said.

"If you learn and you move forward, you don't lose. You've just got to keep going."

So, in other words, they've got to put the pain behind them. Just as O'Dell seemed to be doing in Victory Lane as he enjoyed being soaked in champagne.

"I scooted across the hood and landed on my butt, but I got back up on my feet," O'Dell said. "We're all good. We'll be a little bit sore this week, but it's well worth it.

"Champagne takes the pain away."

There were a lot of healing moments after the race. Including that moment after Johnson pushed Elliott to the frontstretch to celebrate and Johnson and Elliott embraced.

The hug lasted a couple of seconds. A couple of priceless seconds.

"He's been a hero of mine for a long time, and he's been a big supporter of mine -- a guy I've leaned on a lot through some of those hard days," Elliott said.

"He was the first guy at my car to talk to me after Dover last fall, and then to have him push me today was pretty cool. That's something I'll never forget."

Johnson won't either as the future Hall of Famer played a part in what could be an historic first win of another Hall of Fame career.

"You learn every time [you lose]," Johnson said. "In three, four, five years from now, it's just part of his character and who he is. What has happened to this point is certainly that, too.

"I think it's too early in his career to see anything other than the obvious. It just makes him tougher and tougher and stronger and stronger."