Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, now has a Cup title to bolster his resume.
As Jimmie Johnson bid farewell at Phoenix Raceway, the sport celebrated a changing of the guard.
After his best season to date, the 24-year-old second-generation racer is now a second-generation champion joining Lee and Richard Petty and Ned and Dale Jarrett as the only father and son combinations to pull off the feat.
And on Sunday, Elliott accomplished the task in dramatic fashion, coming from the rear of the field to holding off former champions Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski over the final 43 laps.
“Man, I'm at a loss for words,” Elliott said. “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. This is unreal.”
Keselowski finished 2.740-seconds behind Elliott followed by title contenders Logano and Denny Hamlin. Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, making his final start in the No. 48 Chevy, finished fifth before pulling up to the No. 9 Chevy to congratulate his teammate. Johnson then rolled off for a Polish victory lap to thank the fans as Elliott started his celebratory burnouts.
"It definitely feels good for my final race to run well.," Johnson said. "A big tent full of friends here watching. My family was clearly here. I didn't have too much riding on today. Making sure that I had a good run just because I always plan to run well. In my head I always feel like I should.
"But ultimately this year is just a little bit bittersweet for me. And to have the issues we've had and not be competitive down the stretch, not make the Playoffs, all that still stings. But to finish with a solid top 5 to close things out is nice."
Elliott started Season Finale 500 35th after the No. 9 Hendrick team failed pre-race inspection twice but soldiered up to 10th-place in the first 26 laps. Logano dominated the first stage and held serve on pit road to retain the lead to start the second segment. Elliott exited behind Hamlin and restarted third for the Lap 84 restart. Twenty laps later, Elliott started flexing his muscles and passed Hamlin for second-place.
Logano led a career-high 117 laps before developing a vibration. Elliott caught the No. 22 Ford in Turn 2 and executed a bump and run before making a pass for the lead on Lap 120. Over the last nine laps, the Championship 4 pitted.
Despite relinquishing the lead on Lap 139, Elliott quickly cycled back to the point on Lap 151. Eleven laps later, James Davison triggered the third caution. Following pit stops, Elliott came out second behind Kurt Busch, who opted for two tires.
Elliott easily took the lead from Busch on the Lap 168 restart with Keselowski, Logano, Hamlin and Johnson in tow. Elliott appeared to be in command of the stage before Keselowski drove low and inside of the No. 9 Chevy for the lead and the stage win with two circuits remaining.
A slow stop for Keselowski mired the No. 2 Ford in sixth for the Lap 201 restart. Hamlin developed a tight condition in the final stage and never factored into the end game. Keselowski passed Hamlin for third on Lap 224 but Elliott had checked out. By the time the final round of green-flag pit stops began on Lap 256, Hamlin was 4.7-seconds behind Elliott.
Of the Championship 4 contenders, Logano and Hamlin pitted first on Lap 259. Elliott and Keselowski came in for service two laps later—and once again, the No. 2 Penske team lacked execution.
Logano cycled back to the lead on Lap 262 but couldn’t maintain his advantage over Elliott for long. Logano developed another tire vibration and was passed by Elliott on Lap 270.
“Yeah, just waiting on the caution, as always,” Elliott said. “You know, I saw Joey was pretty loose there and felt like I needed to get to him while I could. I knew I'd been kind of tight on a longer run and he was probably going to get a little better. Just unbelievable.
“I mean, I just never would have thought that this year would have gone like it has. I mean, NASCAR Cup Series champion; are you kidding me? Unreal.”
Keselowski maneuvered by Logano on Lap 280 but couldn't catch Elliott. Without a caution, it was smooth sailing for Elliott over the final green-flag run en route to his and crew chief Alan Gustafson’s first Cup title and the 13th for Hendrick Motorsports.
“Oh, it's unbelievable,” Elliott added. “All you can dream for is an opportunity, and I've been very fortunate to have that over the years. 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.
“Mr. Hendrick, for taking a chance on me and believing in me when a lot of people didn't. I think it really says a lot about him. And then to have a championship sponsor like NAPA, all of our partners, and Chevrolet, huge thanks to Team Hendrick and everybody at our shop that peaked at the right time. That's all we can ask for.”
Elliott’s Phoenix win was his fifth of the season—including three in the post-season. He scored 15 top fives and 22 top 10s. Elliott is the 34th different driver to win a Cup title and the sixth different champion under NASCAR’s elimination-style Playoffs, which debuted in 2014.