Forced to start from the rear after pre-race inspection issues, Chase Elliott came front behind to earn his first Cup Series title at 24.
As one NASCAR legend ended on Sunday afternoon, another one may have started to write its first chapters.
Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, took home his first NASCAR Cup Series title at Phoenix Raceway through his victory in the Season Finale 500. Elliott, 24, is the third-youngest driver in NASCAR history to win a Cup title, behind only Bill Rexford (1950) and Jeff Gordon (1995). He also joins his father Bill (1988) as the third father-son duo to earn a series title joining the Pettys (Lee and Richard) and the Jarretts (Ned and Dale)
His victory also comes in the final race of Jimmie Johnson’s full-time NASCAR career. Elliott’s teammate and the winner of a record-tying seven Cup Series championships has driven the No. 48 Chevrolet since 2002, missing only one race since the start of that season.
“This is a moment that, heck, I’ve only dreamt about, and something that, heck, I’m still not sure I completely realize what has exactly happened,” Elliott said of his historic victory. “I don’t feel like I’m a crier in these situations, but dang, I feel like there’s going to come a time where I’m probably going to break down and really lose it. I feel like I kind of did there after the race, and then you get caught up in everything else that’s going on. I’m really looking forward to just kind of sitting back and looking at everything from a different perspective and just enjoying it. But I’m also going to enjoy it as I’m living it because this is something that may not ever happen ever again, and I recognize that.”
“It’s a moment and a time and an accomplishment that I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever take for granted. It’s a really big deal to me.
The two-time defending champion of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, Elliott was able to reach the finale’s contending quartet through a dominant win last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. He was set to compete against previous Cup winners and Team Penske comrades Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, as well as perennial Joe Gibbs Racing contender Denny Hamlin.
But a major knock came before the tires ever hit the track when the No. 9 failed pre-race inspection twice in the lead-up to the event. The penalty sent Elliott to the rear of the field to start the race, forcing him to literally go from first to last.
Elliott was able to work his way through the field, reaching the top-ten by the time a competition caution came out at lap 31 of 312. Ten laps later, he passed one of his fellow championship competitors for the first time when drove past Keselowski for fourth. He then bided his time while Logano dominated the early portions of the race, leading all but two of the first 117 laps.
I look at the guys who have achieved this honor as guys who perform in the toughest of situations. I felt like that’s been an area that we haven’t done a great job of over my first five years, really up until last week,” Elliott explained. “We had a tough situation, a perform-or-go-home type night there at Martinsville, and was able to step up and really get the job done. I thought that was the piece of the puzzle that we haven’t had. I really felt like we had everything else that we needed, and I really believed that.”
Lap 151 saw Elliott take the lead for the first time, but the party was briefly put on hold when the final incident-caution came out 13 laps later when James Davison got into the wall. Kurt Busch won the ensuing race off pit road when drivers came for service due to a far quicker two-tire pit stop, but Elliott immediately took advantage of a fresh four and engaged in a tight battle for the lead against Keselowski for the rest of the second stage. The battle ended with the conclusion with Keselowski on top of the 115-lap segment. But Elliott and company once against proved their mettle in a team sport.
The No. 9 team’s strong pit stop gave them the lead back to open the third and final stage, and only surrendered it when he had to make his final pit stop of the day under green flag conditions. Logano briefly got his lead back after stops cycled through, but Elliott made the final pass for the lead at lap 270, leading the final 43 laps to roll to victory. Keselowski beat out Logano for 2nd, while Hamlin came home fourth. Johnson rounded out the top five to conclude his NASCAR slate on a strong note.
“It was nice to be competitive out there and run the top five, finish in the top five, but my bucket is full. NASCAR has been so wonderful for me. This journey has been more than I could have ever dreamed of or expected or hoped for.”
The last couple of years on track weren’t as I dreamed up, but I’ve experienced the highest of highs and worked with the greatest people, been with one team through this entire journey, and just very thankful for all the people that have helped me get here. All those emotions and all that pride rolled up into just a huge smile today walking out on the grid.”
After the race, several of Elliott’s competitors drove alongside him to send their congratulations. Johnson’s was extra special, leaving a “donut” on the side of Elliott’s No. 9. Neither driver remembered what they said to one another, recalling only Elliott’s joyous screams and a high-five they shared, one inspired by a similar situation in 2003. When Bill Elliott won the penultimate race of the season at Rockingham, he and crowned champion Matt Kenseth likewise shared a high-five while celebrating their respective victories, as Kenseth had clinched his Cup Series title that afternoon.
Once a celebratory Elliott returned to pit road, he shared a group hug with Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick before the celebration commenced. Many found the day as a symbolic passing of the torch from the point of view of HMS and the face of NASCAR. Each Hendrick Motorsports car saw their numbers revamped into the style of the neon yellow No. 48 that has been etched onto Johnson’s car since his Cup Series entry in 2002.
Elliott’s championship moment did appear to somewhat overshadow Johnson’s departure, but “Seven-Time” was perfectly fine with such proceedings.
“Chase Elliott won his first championship. I’m so happy for that guy. Great friend, great family. I’ve been friends with his mom and dad for a lot of years. I can recall going snowboarding with Bill out in Colorado and Chase was maybe eight years old, something like that, on skis, super quiet, wouldn’t say much.”
“To watch him grow up and to be around him and to give him some advice from time to time has really been meaningful for me. Today I think more about him winning a championship more than anything is pretty awesome.”
- Not only was this the final race for Johnson, but also for Kenseth and Clint Bowyer as well. Bowyer finished 14th in his final tour in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, while Kenseth finished 25th in his last race in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Rookie Chase Briscoe will take over Bowyer’s ride in 2021, while Ross Chastain will succeed Kenseth.
- Sunday marked the first season finale race for Phoenix, which will likewise host the championship event in 2021. The finale was previously held at Homestead (2002-19).
- Elliott’s title is the first one for a Chevrolet since Johnson won his seventh and final trophy in 2016. Ironically, Johnson had likewise come from the rear of the field to pull off the feat.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags