Chase Elliott won the biggest race of his life — rallying from having to drop to the rear of the field on pace laps to cross the Phoenix Raceway finish line first in the Series Finale 500 — earning his first career NASCAR Cup Series championship at the age of 24, the youngest champion in NASCAR’s premier series in 25 years.
Ultimately, Elliott won by 2.74 seconds over fellow title contender Brad Keselowski from Team Penske. Joey Logano was third and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin finished fourth.
Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, 45, was fifth in his final race as a full-time driver, and he congratulated his young Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott on-track and later on pit lane — a fitting symbol of the sport’s “changing of the guard.”
“Awesome, awesome, awesome,” Elliott screamed into his team radio after taking the checkered flag. “We are the champions!”
Three of the four title contenders led laps at the 1-mile desert oval. Logano was out front 125 laps and Keselowski led 16 laps, but Elliott’s 153 laps led were indicative of his motivation, talent and the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team’s preparedness for this race. He only earned his place in the four-driver championship field with a clutch victory last week at Martinsville Speedway and made the most of that work on Sunday.
Elliott wrestled the lead away from Logano for good with 43 laps of the 312-lap race remaining. It was the result of a determined driver and team after the car failed pre-race inspection multiple times Sunday morning and had to start last in the 39-car field.
His focus was evident, however, from the drop of the green flag. Elliott’s Chevrolet was 15th by Lap 15. He took the lead for the first time at Lap 79 and led eight different times on the afternoon.
Once Elliott rallied to the front, the four title contenders were predominantly the top four drivers on track the remainder of the race — truly settling the championship among themselves.
“Obviously, when you don’t win it hurts, it definitely stings,” Logano said. “I told the guys before the race, you can’t lose. You either win or you get stronger. Unfortunately, we got stronger today.”
With this championship, Elliott and his father Bill (the 1988 series champion) became only the third father-son NASCAR Cup Series championship combination in the sport’s history joining Lee and Richard Petty and Ned and Dale Jarrett. Elliott’s father stood trackside for the race and joked afterward that he had given his son some simple advice for the big day. Advice Chase readily admits went through his head as he challenged for the life-changing trophy.
“He told me, ‘all you have to do is beat three people,’ ” a smiling Elliott said of his father’s pre-race advice. “He said all week he felt confident that we could come out here and do this. And he was right.
“This is a moment I’ve dreamed about. This is all I’ve wanted to do is be a race car driver and race in NASCAR. To be honest, I’m humbled.”
Elliott’s good friend Ryan Blaney finished sixth followed by regular-season champion Kevin Harvick, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron and Martin Truex Jr.
Clint Bowyer, who is moving to the FOX television booth, and former series champion Matt Kenseth, who is returning to retirement, finished 14th and 25th, respectively, in their final race. Crew chief Chad Knaus, at the helm for Johnson’s seven titles, led Hendrick driver Byron to that ninth-place showing.
And Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer, who qualified for the playoffs with a victory at Kentucky Speedway this summer, finished 28th, officially wrapping up the 2020 Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors.
“I’m at a loss for words, this is unbelievable,” Elliott said. “Oh, my gosh. We did it. I mean, we did it. That’s all I’ve got to tell you. Unreal.
“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.”
The Cup Series’ next race is the 2021 Daytona 500, scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 14 — 98 days away.
NOTE: NASCAR Cup Series post-race inspection is complete. All clear. No issues. Engine tear down is complete and all clear.
Contributing: Staff report