By Ethan Miller ‘23
Twenty-four-year-old Chase Elliott won his first NASCAR title on Sunday, November 8th due to a dominant performance at Phoenix Raceway. Elliott was one of four drivers eligible for the championship due to NASCAR’s Playoffs format that gradually cuts down a sixteen driver field through a series of eliminations throughout the 10 race playoffs. Sunday’s “Season Finale 500” at Phoenix Raceway was the championship race, as Elliott, driving for Hendrick Motorsports competed against Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin. NASCAR’s playoff format is simple for the championship race: the highest finishing driver of the four eligible is crowned the season champion.
Elliott faced tough competition throughout the afternoon, as all three of the other championship drivers ran in the top five all day, and was not aided by the fact that his car failed pre-race inspection multiple times and had to start the race at the rear of the field.
Joey Logano led for much of the early part of the race and won Stage 1 as well, while his teammate Brad Keselowski also led and won Stage 2. However, Elliott dominated for much of the final stage and led the last 43 laps en route to his first win at Phoenix and his first NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
Elliott finished the season with five wins, the most in his career. For much of the year, he was not the title favorite, as Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin won nine and seven races, respectively. Elliott won his first race of the year at Charlotte and followed it up with his second win late in the summer in the inaugural race at Daytona Road Course.
Going into the playoffs, Elliott had two wins and was one of the top contenders for the title behind Harvick, Hamlin, and Keselowski. The young driver faced no real adversity throughout the early rounds of the playoffs and even won his third race at the Charlotte Roval. In the Round of 8, however, he fell behind the cutline and, entering the penultimate race at Martinsville Speedway, needed a win to advance to the season finale and secure a berth into the Championship 4.
Elliott stepped up to the challenge and led a race-high 236 laps en route to a clutch, championship-berth-clinching race victory, his fourth of the season. To make things even better for Chase (and the other three drivers in the Championship 4 as well), Kevin Harvick, the man who had been the clear cut favorite for the entire season and had won the regular-season points title, crashed and was eliminated. As already mentioned, Elliott went on to win Phoenix and the title.
After the race, Elliott was met by an emotional Bill Elliott, his father, in victory lane. The elder Elliott is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame with 44 career victories, 18th all-time, and is considered one of the sport’s all-time greats. Bill won the 1988 Cup Series Championship, and with his son’s triumph on Sunday makes them only the third father-son duo to both win a championship, joining Lee and Richard Petty, and Ned and Dale Jarrett. Elliott also became the third-youngest driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship, behind only Bill Rexford and the legend he replaced at Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff Gordon. The championship for Elliott’s No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet is the first Cup championship for the sponsor and the 13th for team owner Rick Hendrick. Elliott joins the ranks of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Terry Labonte with his championship season for Hendrick.
The win came with a bittersweet end, as Elliott’s teammate, mentor, and friend Jimmie Johnson retired after the race, as he announced earlier in the year that 2020 would be his last full-time NASCAR Cup Series season. Johnson had driven for Hendrick Motorsports for his entire 20-year career, racking up 83 race wins and a record 7 championships, which he holds alongside Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
Johnson finished 5th in his last full-time race, and was there to congratulate his teammate on his first title. On a day in which a 7-time champion left the sport, the next great Hendrick driver got his first, in a symbolic passing of the guard.