Make no mistakes about it, Chase Elliott more than earned his first ever NASCAR Cup Series championship on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
The Hendrick Motosports driver who had to win last week at Martinsville just to advance as one of the four drivers who would compete for the title on Sunday had a day that he or the sport will never forget.
His day didn’t begin as he would have liked as he was scheduled to start the race from the pole only to have his car fail inspection twice which forced him to have to start from the rear of the field.
It is not the way that he envisioned starting what was going to be the biggest race of his young career but he did receive some encouragement right before the start of the race from a teammate.
Jimmy Johnson who was making his last full-time start in the series came up to the soon to be 25 year old teammate and reminded him that he had to win his title in 2016 by starting from the rear of the field. The advice sat well with him because as soon as the green flag waved he began to quickly make his way through the field.
He made it to the top-10 on lap 27 and found himself in the top-3 by lap 48. Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski along with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin rounded out the field of four drivers competing with Elliott for the title.
Hamlin was never really a factor in the race but Logano and Keselowski ran at the front the entire race. Logano won the first stage and led every lap until Elliott took the lead on lap 120.
The second stage became a battle between Keselowski and Elliott with the two swapping the lead before Keselowski claimed the stage win.
Elliott came out of the pits first after the caution at the end of stage two as Keselowski’s team struggled all race long on pit stops. The three drivers continued to trade the lead until with just over 40 laps left Elliott took the lead for good and began to run away from the rest of the field.
The win sealed his first championship and he along with his famous father Bill who won the title in 1988 became only the third father-son duo to win titles as they are now in the record books with Lee and Richard Petty and Ned and Dale Jarrett. He is also the first series’ Most Popular Driver to win the NASCAR Cup Series Championship since his father Bill won it in 1988.
Elliott now joins an elite list of 34 drivers that have won a title and he is the sixth different driver to win the title in the elimination-style format used in the Playoffs.
He joins Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano who have claimed titles after having to survive three rounds of elimination leading up to the final race of the season.
The season was dominated by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin but while those two grabbed most of the headlines, Elliott was putting together the type of season needed to win a title.
He posted five wins, 15 top-5’s and 22 top 10’s but during the 10-race Playoff portion of the schedule the Dawsonville, Georgia native took three checkered flags along with 5 top-5’s and 7 top-10’s.
After the race when Johnson and Elliott along with HMS owner Rick Hendrick shared a hug in victory lane, it had you thinking that you were witnessing the passing of the torch in the sport.
It was the 13th NASCAR Cup Series owner championship for Hendrick and the first since Johnson’s last title in 2016. Johnson will now leave the sport with his record tying seven titles which leaves Elliott and his 2020 title as the flagship team in one of the most storied organizations in the history of the sport.