Terrin Waack | NASCAR Digital Media

Chase Elliott’s title defense falls short at Phoenix despite leading second-most laps

AVONDALE, Ariz. — The defender was defeated.

Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, entered Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway as the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion. The 2020 title holder exited the Arizona desert as the 2021 fourth-place finalist.

“All you can do is the best you can do, right?” No. 9 crew chief Alan Gustafson told NASCAR.com. “You do it every week. Certainly, when there’s circumstances like this, you find a little extra motivation. But we try hard every week, we try to win every week.”

Sunday was no exception.

RELATED: Race results | Kyle Larson wins 2021 title

Elliott ultimately finished fifth, the lowest of the Championship 4 contenders. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson won the race and therefore the Bill France Cup trophy. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin placed second and third, respectively, on the results sheet and in the season standings.

Larson led a race-high 107 laps, including the last 28 to the checkered flag. Elliott had the second-best tally out of the 312 total with 94 leading circuits.

“You get a caution with 20 laps to go, it’s going to be very difficult to run down and pass the guy that jumps out front in the restart,” Elliott said. “But yeah, proud of our team. Felt like we had a nice game plan coming into the week, felt like our car did a lot of things we wanted it to do. No major mistakes, just needed to be a little better in those first few sequences of restarts and pit stops there at the end.”

With 29 laps remaining, debris on the track drew a yellow and the field pitted. The No. 5 crew performed the fastest stop that allowed Larson to gain three spots off of pit road, jumping from fourth to first. Elliott, meanwhile, lost a spot and settled in fourth.

Larson chose the top lane for the restart, and Hamlin took the bottom next to him. Elliott lined up behind Hamlin, alongside Truex.

The final green-flag stretch lasted 24 laps. Larson held off his competition and wound up with a 0.398-second margin of victory.

“All those cars were so good, whichever one was out front was probably going to be the only one who was going to win,” Gustafson said. “I was pretty happy we could pass the leader. We did that a few times. Just disappointed we didn’t keep up with it again at the end.”

Elliott last held the lead with 62 laps remaining. He had taken it from and lost it to Larson. Actually, every time Elliott moved into first – four total occurrences – it required passing Larson.

The No. 9 group won two races in 2021. Both came at road courses – Circuit of The Americas (NASCAR’s debut) and Road America (series’ first race there since 1956). That gives him 13 career victories since his first in 2018.

This marked Elliott’s second Championship 4 appearance overall.

“I’m happy to be here, I’m not happy right now,” Gustafson said. “I mean, it’s hard two minutes after the race to sit here and find the good.”