Walk-off win: Second-generation driver Chase Elliott is NASCAR’s newest champion
NASCAR has a new champion. In winning Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix International Raceway, Chase Elliott earned his first Cup Series championship. In a strange season of firsts—from a pandemic-influenced schedule to the use of rain tires during the race—Elliott becomes the Cup Series’ first driver since 1988 to win most popular driver and top honors in the same year. Last one to do it? Chase’s father, hall-of-famer Bill Elliott. 24-year-old Chase is also the third youngest driver, behind Bill Rexford and Jeff Gordon, to win a championship in NASCAR’s premier division.
Young-gun Elliott led a race-high 145 laps en route to his race victory and subsequent championship, though victory did not come without race day drama for Elliott and his Hendrick Motorsports team. Just before the field took the green flag in the desert, it was announced that Elliott’s Camaro failed pre-race inspection. The driver from Dawsonville, Georgia, had to forfeit his first-place starting position and tack on to the end of the field—dead last. Elliott would have to pass every car to have a shot at his first title. He did just that. By lap 30 Elliott cracked the top ten, navigating back-markers like moving chicanes. Come lap 120, Elliott found himself in the lead after his pit crew laid down a blazing stop. From there, the second-generation driver would lead a race-high 154 laps, only surrendering the lead a couple times. His fellow championship competitors—Brad Keslowski, Joey Logano, and Denny Hamlin— showed speed, but only in flashes. In fact, it looked as though Keslowski’s Penske Ford was faster than Elliott, wrestling the lead from the eventual champion around the midway point. A slow final pit-stop, however, set Keslowski back and he could only recover to second place, a little over two seconds behind the winner. Logano and Hamlin finished third and fourth, respectively.
Under NASCAR’s current elimination format, the field of championship-eligible drivers are whittled down to four by the final race. Think NCAA bracket, but the losing teams still play ball on the same court. This year, the four drivers eligible finished 1-2-3-4. In a 39-car field, what’re the odds of that happening? Actually, not that low. Since this format’s inception in 2014, the winner of the final race has been a championship-eligible driver, and beyond that, all four eligible drivers finished in the top four back in 2018. The cream rises to the top, and championship contenders simply find that extra tenth. Going into the season’s penultimate race at Martinsville Speedway, it looked as though Elliott wasn’t fit to be in the final four. He had only won three races all year. Season dominator Kevin Harvick had three times the win tally, but like any playoff sport, some drivers just get hot at the right time. In walk-off fashion, Elliott notched the last two races of the season; one in Martinsville to avoid elimination and secure a spot in the championship final four, and then at the season finale. “I just never would have thought that this year would’ve gone like it has,” said a stupefied Elliott in Phoenix’s victory lane.
This was the first time the 1-mile oval in Arizona hosted the final race. In fact, it was the first time since 2002 that a track other than Homestead-Miami Speedway served as the season-ending battleground. Fans were able to attend at limited capacity. Those who were in attendance also witnessed NASCAR’s most successful active driver, Jimmie Johnson, make was his final Cup Series start. The seven-time champion finished a respectable fifth and drove to pit lane for his final post-race interview as a NASCAR driver, but not before wheeling his car around backwards to wave to the fans in the stands. After a quick salute, Johnson pulled up to congratulate Elliott, who is coincidentally his teammate at Hendrick motorsports. “To share a moment like that in Jimmie’s last race, to win, to lock the championship; those are moments you can only dream of,” said Elliott. The two shared a fist bump and then Johnson drove away, symbolism palpable. The torch had been passed to the young champion.