AVONDALE, Ariz. – Chase Elliott proved that he could come in clutch by winning his way into the Championship 4. He backed up that assertion Sunday by claiming his first NASCAR Cup Series title.
Elliott won the Season Finale 500 at Arizona’s Phoenix Raceway to capture the crown in NASCAR’s premier series, finishing highest among the Championship 4 en route to his maiden championship.
The 24-year-old defeated title rivals Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin en route to the season-long honors. It’s his first Cup title in his fifth full-time season at the sport’s top level.
A smoky burnout gave way to an emotional celebration, as Elliott received kudos and hugs from outgoing teammate Jimmie Johnson, as well as team owner Rick Hendrick on the frontstretch.
“I’m not sure that I know [what it means to win the championship],” said a tearful and jubilant Elliott. “I just … man, I’m at a loss for words. This is unbelievable. Oh my gosh. We did it. We did it! That’s all I can say. Unreal.
“I just can’t say enough about our group. I felt like we took some really big strides this year, and last week was a huge one,” Elliott added. “To come out of that with a win and a shot to come here and have a chance to race is unbelievable. I don’t know. I don’t even know. This is unreal.”
In a race where he had to start from the rear of the field due to a pair of pre-race inspection failures, Elliott took arguably the best car at the one-mile desert oval and left no doubt about the outcome.
He cracked the top 10 by a lap-30 competition caution and passed fellow title contender Joey Logano to take the lead for the first time under green-flag conditions at lap 120. From there, the die was cast.
Though there were brief times where the other championship-eligible drivers found their ways back to the front, including a frantic battle at the end of the second stage where Brad Keselowski passed him coming to the green-checkered flag, Elliott kept rising back to the top.
After the final round of green-flag pit stops began with 53 to go, Logano cycled to the race lead by pitting one lap sooner than Elliott. However, the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet quickly came calling.
Elliott chased Logano down from just over a second back and made the winning move off turn four with 43 laps left. He nearly squeezed Logano into the outside wall before completing the pass, but once out in front, Elliott never looked back. He drove away down the stretch and eventually won by 2.74 seconds.
In all, Elliott led eight times for a race-high 154 laps en route to both the win and the title.
It marked the seventh straight year – and every year since the debut of the elimination playoff format – that the champion won the last race of the season.
It was also the culmination of Elliott’s childhood dreams, as he joined his Hall of Fame father – 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott – as a Cup titlist. It was a reminder to the young Elliott that perseverance pays off.
“All you can dream for is an opportunity, and I’ve been very fortunate to have those over the years,” Chase Elliott noted. “That’s all thanks to some great people. My parents, obviously, have played a huge role. The past year has been tough. I lost my best friend about a year ago tonight. I lost my grandmother last year. And all those things bring families closer, so I really can’t thank everyone enough.
“I have to thank Mr. [Rick] Hendrick for taking a chance on me and believing in me when a lot of people didn’t. I think it really says a lot about him,” he continued. “And then to have a championship sponsor like NAPA, all of our partners, and Chevrolet … we peaked at the right time. That’s all we can ask for.”
Keselowski passed Logano for runner-up honors coming to nine to go, but at that point, Elliott was nearly three seconds clear of his pursuers and had the Bill France Cup well in hand.
The Michigan native’s second-place finish in the race also gave him second in points for the year, his best championship result since winning the Cup title in his own right eight years earlier.
Considering the final stage ran uninterrupted under the green flag once racing resumed with 112 to go, Keselowski lamented that there wasn’t a late caution to give him a better shot at the win.
“I would have liked to have had one of those late-race yellows, like we saw in the Truck and Xfinity races,” Keselowski said. “I thought we were pretty good there; we just didn’t have the track position to make it show. I thought we had a shot [to win] at the end of the second stage, and we just couldn’t keep it up in a spot to where we could have a [longer] lead.
“I’m really proud of the speed we had. It was a solid day; I just wish we’d had one more spot.”
With Logano crossing third and Denny Hamlin ending up fourth, it was the second time – after the 2018 title race – that the Championship 4 swept the top-four positions in the final race of the year.
In his last race as a full-time Cup driver, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson was “best of the rest,” placing fifth ahead of Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron and Martin Truex Jr.
As the laps wound down inside 20 to go, Elliott admitted that he wondered what might go wrong.
“I was just waiting on the caution, as always,” Elliott said. “I saw Joey was pretty loose there and felt like I needed to get to him while I could. I knew I’d been tight on a longer run and he was probably going to get a little better. Just unbelievable that it all ended the way that it did.
“Heck, I never would have thought that this year would go like it has,” he added. “NASCAR Cup Series champion; are you kidding me? Unreal.”
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