Like father, like son. Chase Elliott is now a NASCAR Cup series champion, just like his father Bill. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won today’s season-ending race at Phoenix Raceway to claim his first career title. Chase became the third-youngest Cup Series champion in NASCAR history. Only Jeff Gordon and 1950 champ Bill Rexford were younger.
After winning last weekend in Martinsville, Elliott was set to start from pole position today, until his car failed pre-race inspection twice, forcing him to start from the rear of the field. That was just another obstacle that the young phenom conquered, as he charged to the front of the pack within the first 20 laps. From there, it was duel after duel with fellow championship contenders Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano.
The four title contenders battled at the front of the field for the entire race, with Logano dominating early. The former champion led 125 laps on Sunday, but he was unable to hold off the hard-charging Elliott in the final stage. Chase led the most laps (153) on the day while Keselowski led just 16 total laps, and Hamlin never was able to position himself into the lead. Brad and Joey finished 2nd and 3rd in the race for Team Penske, who captured the Xfinity Series championship last night with Austin Cindric. Hamlin came home in 4th place, but it was the driver rounding out the top five that had everyone talking.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson was making his final start in the No. 48 car, putting a cap on his storied 19-year NASCAR career. The soon-to-be Hall of Famer may still have a few races in the coming years, but his full-time status in Cup has officially come to an end. It was a brilliant drive by Johnson, who earned the 232nd top-five finish of his career. It was an incredible journey for Johnson, who said his favorite memory from this race is seeing his teammate win his first title. “I’m so happy for that guy. Great friend. … To watch him grow up and be around him and give him some advice from time to time is really meaningful to me.”
Johnson wasn’t the only driver calling it a career on Sunday. Both Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer made their final NASCAR appearances, with Clint finishing 14th and Matt coming home 25th, respectively. It was also the final race for Leavine Family Racing and Germain Racing, who are closing their doors. After 7 championships as Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus worked his final race on the pit stand with William Byron, as he will transition to an executive management position with the Hendrick organization. MRN pit reporter Winston Kelley also wrapped up his broadcast career after ?? years. Kelley is also the executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Elliott made history on Sunday, but found it difficult to put into words. “I’m not sure that I still even know,” Elliott said when asked what the championship means to him. “I just, man, I’m at a loss for words. This is unbelievable. 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.”
Elliott became the fourth driver to bring a driving championship to team owner Rick Hendrick. His march to the title gave Hendrick Motorsports its 13th title and its first since 2016, when Johnson scored the last of his seven championships. Hendrick’s other titles came from Gordon, and 1996 title winner Terry Labonte. The Hendrick team is going through some exciting changes, which were highlighted by the signing of Kyle Larson, who will drive the No. 5 car next season. Alex Bowman is transitioning to the No. 48 car, Knaus is moving to a new position, and Elliott is now the face of the entire sport.
Like his father, Chase drove the No. 9 car to a championship. They are the third father-son duo to win Cup Series titles, joining Hall of Famers Lee and Richard Petty, and Ned and Dale Jarrett.
Chase won the Xfinity Series title as a rookie in 2014 with JR Motorsports, and took full advantage of his opportunities after that. “All you can dream for is an opportunity, and I’ve been very fortunate to have that over the years,” Elliott said. “You know, and that’s all thanks to some great people. You know, my parents obviously have played a huge role. The past year has been tough. I lost my best friend about a year ago tonight. Lost my grandmother last year. And all those things bring families closer, so I really can’t thank them enough.”
As for Johnson, the 45-year old now turns his attention to the NTT IndyCar series, where he will be a rookie next season. Johnson is set to compete in the 14 road and street course races in 2021 with Chip Ganassi Racing. Depending on how things go, he could be aiming for the full-season in 2022. After testing at Barber Motorsports Park on Monday, he noted that he will have at least one more test this year in his No. 48 Honda. That will be the open test at Laguna Seca on Tuesday.
Chase is the first driver since Kevin Harvick in 2014, the first year of the winner-take-all format, to win the final race in the Round of 8 and then the championship race. It is the first championship for Alan Gustafson, in his 16th season as a crew chief. Gustafson finished second with Mark Martin in 2009 and third with Gordon in 2015.
Though Logano and Keselowski won the first two stages, it was Elliott that won the one that mattered. It was a disappointing day for the Penske drivers, but they were complimentary after the race. While neither driver was able to secure their second Cup title, the pursuit of hardware continues for the team.
Next weekend is the 2020 season finale for the IMSA WeatherTech series at Sebring International Raceway. Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor currently hold a two-point lead in the championship for the Acura Team Penske No. 7 machine. So far Roger Penske’s empire has won the championship in Supercars and Xfinity, with runner-up finishes in IndyCar and Cup.
Following the race on Sunday evening, Mr Hendrick also let it be known that both Elliott and Johnson will participate in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January. “Both of our guys, Chase and Jimmie, will be in the 24‑hour race, so I’m looking forward to that,” said Hendrick, the former IMSA GTP entrant. “Maybe I jumped the gun on that. I’m not 100 percent sure. I heard a rumor, okay, so I can’t confirm that.” Action Express Racing is believed to be the destination for the pair, according to Marshall Pruett. Elliott would make his debut with Felipe Nasr and Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering AXR Cadillac, while Johnson would make his 9th start in the 24-hour race in a second AXR Cadillac.
The 2020 NASCAR season has come to a conclusion, with the sport’s most popular driver taking home the championship. Silly Season is essentially wrapped up as there will be plenty of new faces in new places come February. The 63rd Daytona 500 is just 98 days away, with Hamlin winning the Great American Race each of the last two seasons.