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Daytona 500 Speedweek announces the return of NASCAR
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The moveable type sign of Dawsonville’s Pool Room displays a countdown to the Daytona 500. - photo by Bob Christian

Unlike most restaurants, the sign outside of the Pool Room in downtown Dawsonville doesn’t display the daily specials. Instead, this sign, perched above an antique racecar, has a running count down to the beginning of the 2019 Daytona 500, which takes place on Feb. 17.

The Pool Room has long been the central hub for Dawsonville racing fans and a small handful dropped by the diner on Sunday, Feb.11 to eat lunch and watch Chase Elliott as he attempted to win the pole for the third time in four years.

After Elliott’s three-win season last year, fans are excited about the qualifying events leading up to the race in a way that they haven’t been in recent years.

“I thought he was pretty good last year. After he got that first win, he was good, and he got better,” NASCAR fan Tim Gilleland said. “This year, I think he’s going to be great.”

As locals moved in and out for lunch, each would inevitably ask for an update on Elliott’s progress and manager Gordon Pirkle, Jr. would step away from the grill, check one of the three TV’s (all tuned to the race), and quickly answer the question.

The big topic of the day was the accident that Elliott was involved in during Saturday’s practice session for The Advanced Auto Parts Clash, a 75-lap showcase race that features a limited field of 20 drivers.

“It was his fault, he admitted that,” Pirkle Jr. said. “But he went around and apologized to everyone involved and you have to respect that.”

The café quieted down as Elliott’s No. 9 Napa car took to the track for his two laps, and when he finished in first place after his run of 193.92 mph, the initial assessment from the gathered fans was that the time would not stand. The crowd was proven correct when Elliott was bumped out of first by the very next driver and went on to finish the day with the fourth fastest time.

Daytona is unique in NASCAR in that the qualifying event only places the pole position and the driver next to him. All other drivers must compete in the Gander RV duels, a pair of 150-mile, 60-lap races used to seed the field of the Daytona 500. The winner of each duel starts on the second row with the remaining drivers positioned based on where they finished in each race.

“Now he just has to do what he did last year and win the duel.” Pirkle Jr. said.

As he continued to talk, it became obvious how proud Pirkle Jr. was of the Pool Room’s connection to the history of racing in general, and more specifically, to the history of racing in Dawsonville, which he emphasized when he pointed out the newest addition to the restaurant’s vast collection of memorabilia.

“That tire on the end is from the car Chase used to win his first race at Watkins Glen,” Pirkle Jr. said. “It kind of completes the set because the one on that far corner came from the car Gober Sosebee used to get all his wins, and the one up front is from Bill Elliott’s car.”

For a true taste of racing history, the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame is a must-see location and visitors will soon be greeted with a more visible and informative section honoring the highlights of Dawsonville’s new NASCAR hero, Chase Elliott, as the museum moves dozens of trophies, plaques and other pieces of memorabilia into display cases in the entrance way and along the exterior of the building.

“All of his stuff was kind of in the back of the building and, after last season, we wanted people to know we were proud of Chase,” hall of fame president and curator Gordon Pirkle said. Pirkle also owns the Pool Room and is father to Pirkle Jr. “As soon as I can get a car of his, I’ll have it out there too.”

The history of NASCAR, as well as a good chunk of the history of “The Great American Race,” can be traced along the back roads of Dawson County, and nobody knows that better than Pirkle, who has been amassing his collection for well over 40 years.

“I think you can trace 32 Daytona wins to this tiny town,” Pirkle said. “A lot of those were on the old Beach Course, of course.”

As he went on to explain the connection between Dawsonville and Daytona, Pirkle made sure to point out a modified 1939 Ford, the No. 50 Cherokee used by Dawson County’s Gober Sosebee to set the qualifying record in the modified division at the Daytona Beach Course in 1949.

“That’s a record that will never be beat because they will never let anyone race on the beach again,” Pirkle said.

He pointed across the museum to the Bill Elliott’s famous 1987 Coors Thunderbird and pointed out a similar distinction for the more modern vehicle.

“That car set the speed record on the track at Daytona at just over 210 miles per hour,” Pirkle said. “That’s another record that will never be beaten since they added restrictor plates. Imagine that, two records from the same course held by two guys from the same town.”

Pirkle also spoke to the impressive record built at Daytona by Chase Elliott in his early career. He pointed out the younger Elliott had won back-to-back poles in his first two years, being the youngest driver to win the pole at Daytona the first year, and then coupled the second pole with a victory in the Duel, making him only the third driver in history to accomplish the feat.

“He has always been on the edge of winning at Daytona,” Pirkle said. “It’s only a matter of time until he does.”

Elliott went on the finish his day in Daytona with a sixth-place finish in the Advance Auto Parts Clash, and will race again in the Gander RV Duel at 9 p.m. Feb. 14.