It took some effort to weave through cars, but Chase Elliott went from the rear of the field to victory en route to his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. After starting at the back due to failing pre-race inspection twice, he made his journey through, joined his championship rivals at the front, and held them off.
With Elliott being sent from the pole to the back for Sunday’s Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway, Brad Keselowski moved into his slot in first and joined his Team Penske team-mate Joey Logano, both seeking their second titles. Denny Hamlin, also looking for championship #1, started fourth.
Further back in the field were Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer, who were making their final starts as full-time Cup drivers. Bowyer, moving to the Fox NASCAR booth in 2021, started ninth, while Johnson, a seven-time champion set to head to the IndyCar Series, began his swan song in twenty-sixth. Johnson led the field during pace laps for one final time before returning to his starting slot. Other final runs included Matt Kenseth starting sixteenth in what is likely his final race for the foreesable future, Christopher Bell starting nineteenth in the last race for Leavine Family Racing and Ty Dillon starting twenty-second in Germain Racing‘s farewell event.
“19 years… It’s been an incredible journey, and one that I could’ve never dreamed of,” Johnson tweeted the morning of the race. “I get to go out on my terms, with the support of my family and friends and for that, I am grateful and fulfilled.”
Bowyer responded, “No one has done it better! Champion of life more than anything and this video shows a lot of that. Incredible things on the track, off of it, and everywhere in between. I’m sure glad I get to line up across the bar from him from now on instead the starting grid.”
Logano led early while Elliott began his climb through the field; he was in the top thirty after five laps and cracked the top twenty by lap 12. He reached the top ten on lap 27, four laps before the competition caution came out. Logano beat Hamlin off pit road, while Keselowski lost six spots. John Hunter Nemechek received a speeding penalty on his stop.
The restart took place on lap 37. Four laps later, Elliott passed Keselowski and finally joined the championship battle in the top five.
By the end of the stage, the Championship Four occupied the top four with Logano leading Hamlin, Elliott, and Keselowski. The rest of the top ten were Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman, Bowyer, Kurt Busch, and Matt DiBenedetto; all six drivers had been eliminated in earlier rounds of the playoffs.
The final four maintained their positions in and off pit road, while Bowyer gained four spots with his stop to move up to fifth.
The second stage began on lap 84 as Logano continued to lead. However, reports of a vibration eventually surfaced in the #22 due to debris on the grille, causing him to fall back as Elliott took the lead on lap 120.
Keselowski pitted on lap 128, initiating a wave of green-flag stops. Logano did so on lap 138, followed by Elliott and Hamlin a lap later that cycled the lead to Johnson. DiBenedetto and Aric Almirola also spent time in front after inheriting the top spot. Behind them, Elliott regained the championship lead before taking the race lead on lap 151.
A James Davison wreck on lap 161 brought out the first race-related caution. Ku. Busch changed two tyres to be the first off pit road, while Austin Dillon and Michael McDowell received speeding penalties.
The race resumed with Busch and Elliott leading on lap 168. The latter cleared Busch but lost first to Keselowski on lap 173. After ten laps of battling, Elliott retook the lead, though Keselowski continued to apply pressure.
On the final lap, Keselowski made his move on the inside as the two went through turn four, enabling him to take the stage victory. Logano and Hamlin respectively finished third and fourth, followed by Blaney, Johnson, Ku. and Ky. Busch, DiBenedetto, and William Byron.
Eliott exited pit road ahead of Logano, while Keselowski lost four positions with his stop. Preece exited the race between stages for mechanical reasons, but later returned. Quin Houff, on the other hand, retired with handling issues.
Lap 201 opened the final stage of the year, with the Championship Four quickly assembling in the top positions as Elliott led. On lap 223, Keselowski passed Hamlin for third.
The final pit cycle under green began on lap 250. Logano and Hamlin pitted ten laps later, followed by Elliott and Keselowski. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. briefly inherited the lead before hitting pit road himself, which shuffled Logano back in front with Elliott in tow. Yet another poor stop dropped Keselowski back.
Lapped traffic came into play, which allowed Elliott to catch up to the leader before finally overtaking him for first on lap 269. Elliott began to pull away, with his lead over Logano growing to over a second with 30 laps to go, followed by over three seconds just ten laps later. Keselowski took second from his Penske team-mate with ten laps remaining, but neither of them nor Hamlin could mount a strong-enough charge to catch Elliott.
Facing little opposition, Elliott drove off to his fifth win of the season, eleventh of his Cup career, first at Phoenix, and ultimately the championship-winning victory. Keselowski, Logano, and Hamlin finished behind in their respective positions. Fittingly, the win comes on the six-year anniversary of Elliott’s first NASCAR national series title, in what is now the Xfinity Series in 2014, was also clinched at Phoenix during its spot as the penultimate race on the schedule.
“I’m at a loss for words, this is unbelievable,” said Elliott in his post-race interview with NBC. “Oh my gosh. We did it. I mean, we did it. That’s all I’ve got to tell you. Unreal.
“Championship crew chief Alan Gustafson is now a NASCAR Cup Series champion, and very deserving. 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. To come out of that with a win and a shot to come here and have a chance to race is unbelievable.
“Heck, I don’t know. I don’t even know. This is unreal.”
Elliott joins his father and 1988 champion Bill as the third father-son duo to win Cup titles, following the Pettys (Lee and Richard) and the Jarretts (Ned and Dale). In an interesting coincidence, the Elliotts won championships the same year that the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers won the World Series and NBA Finals, respectively. It is also likely that Elliott wins the Most Popular Driver Award for the third consecutive year, allowing him to be the first driver to win MPD honours and the Cup title since his father.
All three NASCAR national series champions also won their series’ respective races at the Daytona road course in August, an event that was created as a placeholder due to COVID-19 and is not returning for 2021 (though it will be used for the Busch Clash exhibition event). For the math enthusiasts, Truck champion Sheldon Creed and Xfinity titlist Austin Cindric respectively drive the #2 and #22; the sum of those numbers is 24, which Elliott began his Cup career in before switching to #9; poetically, Elliott is 24 years old, making him the third-youngest champion behind Jeff Gordon, the previous driver of the #24 who also won his first title at 24 (Bill Rexford is the youngest Cup champ at 23).
Johnson closed out his legendary career as the highest-finishing non-Championship driver in fifth, while Bowyer aptly finished fourteenth in the #14 car. Leavine and Germain’s farewell races ended with seventeenth and twenty-first-place finishes, respectively, while Kenseth wrapped up his interim driver stint and likely his final season of racing in twenty-ffth.
The 2020 title is Hendrick Motorsports‘ first since Johnson won his record-tying seventh in 2016. After the race, Johnson and Elliott saluted one another.
“My heart’s full. I’m just so happy to have this wonderful career and so many people behind me,” Johnson stated. “[…] This has just been quite a journey for all of us, and my heart’s full and I’m very thankful for today. Had a great run on the track, and I just can’t go without congratulating Chase Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports on winning another championship.”