Chase Elliott had the moves, the power and the drafting help when he needed them.
Elliott shot to the lead in a web of traffic in the final five miles and won Sunday’s 500-mile NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway. Elliott, winning for the fifth time this year, thus earned a spot in the playoffs’ Round of 8. It will mark Elliott’s sixth appearance in that playoff round.
Following Elliott at the finish were Ryan Blaney, Michael McDowell, Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin. Elliott’s win is the first by a playoff driver in this year’s playoffs.
Elliott led the last lap and nine others during the afternoon as 17 drivers owned first place for at least one lap on a typically competitive day at NASCAR’s biggest track. Seven drivers, including Elliott, led laps in double figures.
Blaney led nine of the final 17 laps in search of his first points win of the year but couldn’t hold off Elliott’s charge at the end.
The victory was huge for Elliott, who carries a platter full of playoff points (46) with him and will be in great shape when the next round begins in two weeks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Round of 12 will end Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.
“It was a wild last couple of laps,” Elliott told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “I wasn’t super crazy about being on the bottom. Fortunately, I just go clear enough off of two to move up and had a good enough run to get out front.”
Despite a string of issues last week at Texas Motor Speedway and very public complaining by drivers this week about the Next Gen car, Sunday’s race was relatively calm by Talladega standards. There was an early-race multi-car wreck, but much of the rest of the race rolled along without serious incident.
With the win, Elliott jumped to the point lead. Blaney is second and Chastain third. Below the cutline entering the final race of the second round are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Bowman missed the race with concussion-like symptoms. He was replaced by Noah Gragson, who finished 19th.
Powering through the top five, Elliott moved from the inside line to the outside in front of Erik Jones and benefitted from Jones’ push as he outran Blaney to the finish line.
As has been the case at so many Talladega races over the years, risky though impactful technique in the long drafting lines was a key. Approaching the finish line at the first two stages, Blaney and Elliott made excellent moves in the trioval to win the stages — Blaney the first and Elliott the second.
The last round of pit stops began with 28 laps to go. At the end of the pit cycle, Blaney, Chastain and Jones were at the front.
With 10 laps to go, Blaney led the lead drafting line, with Chastain and Todd Gilliland trailing. Jones led the other line.
The field was slowed by caution with seven laps to go when Daniel Hemric‘s car experienced engine trouble and stalled in the final pit row spot.
Bell took a big position hit on lap 99 when he lost control entering pit road and slid. He lost a lap but rebounded to challenge near the top 10 in the final stage, finishing 17th.
The race hadn’t reached the halfway point of the first stage when a multi-car accident brought out the day’s second caution flag.
The wreck began on lap 25 when rookie Harrison Burton lost control of his car in three-wide traffic entering Turn 1. Burton, looking for drafting help from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. behind him, was bumped by Stenhouse and slid to the left in the middle of a pack of traffic, causing drivers behind and around him to scramble.
Involved in the accident, in addition to Burton and Stenhouse, were Austin Cindric, Gragson, Justin Allgaier, Justin Haley, Ty Gibbs and Joey Logano.
The early part of the race included some odd cooperation in Talladega’s famous draft. Racing one-two in tight formation were Hamlin, the leader, and William Byron, both gaining speed from their drafting. Last week at Texas, the two had major issues, resulting in Byron bumping Hamlin into a spin under caution and being nailed by a NASCAR penalty.
Stage 1 winner: Ryan Blaney
Stage 2 winner: Chase Elliott
Who had a good race: Chase Elliott zoomed to the front with bold moves in the final laps and scored his fifth win of the year. … Ryan Blaney does everything but win. Sunday marked his best finish (second) of the year. …Michael McDowell was active in the front-line draft over the final miles and finished a strong third. He has 12 top-10 finishes this year, a personal record. … Todd Gilliland (seventh) scored his second Cup top-10 finish.
Who had a bad race: Joey Logano was involved in an early-race accident, rebounded to race near the front but finished 27th. He fell from the point lead to fifth. … Christopher Bell slid onto pit road attempting a green-flag pit stop. He finished 17th and is 22 points below the playoff cutline. … Kyle Larson was basically a non-factor, finishing 18th
Next: The Round of 12 will end Oct. 9 on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Four drivers will be eliminated, and eight will advance.