MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Chase Elliott was backed into a corner entering Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Entering 25 points below the cutoff line in order to advance to the championship round next weekend at Phoenix Raceway, Elliott effectively had to win in order to earn an opportunity to race for his first NASCAR Cup Series championship.
In perhaps one of the best performances of his short career, Elliott dominated at the half-mile oval on Sunday afternoon. He led a race-high 236 laps, including the final 44, to punch his ticket to the championship round at Phoenix Raceway.
“This is the biggest win ever for us. I’m just so proud to be able to be backed into a corner like that and have to win tonight,” Elliott said after climbing from his car. “I feel like that’s what we’ve been missing these past four or five years and perform when we don’t have a choice. And, to do that tonight; we couldn’t ask for a better night. This is unreal.”
The numbers will show that Elliott won Sunday’s race by more than six seconds over runner-up Ryan Blaney, but it was hardly that straightforward.
Elliott spent much of the race battling with Martin Truex Jr., who also had to win in order to earn an opportunity to race for the series championship next weekend. Truex led 129 laps Sunday and at times appeared to have a better car than Elliott.
In addition to battling Truex for most of the race, Elliott also had to overcame two slow pit stops in the final 150 laps of the race. The first slow pit stop came after a caution on lap 152, which saw Elliott’s jackman T.J. Semke jump off the pit wall too soon.
Semke realized his mistake and quickly returned to the pit wall, but the delay led to a slow stop that dropped Elliott from the lead to fourth off pit road. NASCAR initially penalized Elliott for a crew member over the wall too soon, but rescinded that penalty after reviewing the stop and finding that Semke returned to the pit wall when he realized his mistake.
“T.J. made a mistake and he was heads up enough to go back and fix it to not have to go to the back of the field,” Elliott said. “That probably…if he hadn’t have done that I don’t think we’d have been able to win.”
Elliott was able to hang in the top-three during that run before the next caution waved on lap 400 for James Davison slowing to a stop on track. Again the leaders hit pit road and again Elliott’s pit crew struggled, with an issue on the left-front dropping Elliott to 10th off pit road.
“The experiences that I’ve kind of had handed to me over the past number of years since I’ve been in Cup has taught me a lot of lessons that the race is not over,” Elliott said.
Truex took the lead on the ensuing restart as Elliott quickly went to work fighting his way back to the front. The final caution of the race came with 60 laps left when William Byron backed his Chevrolet into the wall in turns three and four.
By then Elliott was back in the top-five as the leaders all came down pit road. This time Elliott’s pit crew came through, getting him off pit road third behind Truex and Joey Logano. With no fresh tires in the pits, Corey LaJoie stayed on track and assumed the lead for the restart.
Truex quickly dispatched LaJoie to take the lead when racing resumed with 51 laps left, but Elliott moved to second just as quickly and began to hound Truex for the lead. After a couple laps of searching, Elliott got to Truex’s inside and completed the pass with 44 laps left.
Once out front, Elliott drove away from the field. Truex soon fell out of contention when he reported a loose right-front wheel on his Toyota, which eventually forced him to pit road with 26 laps left.
That left Elliott all alone out front and he cruised to his fourth victory of the season and an opportunity to battle for his first NASCAR Cup Series title next weekend at Phoenix Raceway.
“This is just unbelievable,” Elliott said. “We’re going to Phoenix with a shot to win a championship and have a beautiful blue NAPA Camaro headed out there with a shot to win a title. What more could you ask for?”
Following Elliott and Blaney across the finish line Sunday were Logano, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch.
Elliott will join Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski as the four drivers eligible to win the NASCAR Cup Series title next weekend. Kevin Harvick, who has won nine races this year and was the regular season champion, had a dismal race and failed to qualify for the championship round.
Also eliminated from playoff contention were Truex, Busch and Bowman.
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