Always the unquestionable fan favorite at NASCAR’s famed Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Georgia-native Chase Elliott made a last-lap pass to claim the NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 victory Sunday afternoon – having to better one of his best friends, Ryan Blaney, to earn the first automatic bid into the next round of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
With a lap to go, Elliott pulled his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet from the bottom lane to the top lane and got a huge push from behind by Petty GMS Racing driver Erik Jones – the momentum enough to edge fellow Playoff competitor Blaney by a slight .046-second at the line and give him a chance to hoist his series-best fifth trophy of the season; 18th of his seven-year NASCAR Cup Series career.
"Moments like that, you have to really cherish and you guys are what makes this special to me," Elliott, 26, told the cheering fans. "So, thank you sincerely, I really appreciate it."
"It was a wild last couple laps. I wasn’t super crazy about being on the bottom and fortunately I got just clear enough off of [Turn] 2 to slide up in front of Erik [Jones] and he gave me some great shoves, obviously a Team Chevy partner there. Just had a good enough run to get out front and then was able to stay far enough in front of Ryan [Blaney] at the line to get it done.
"These things are so so hard to win, you gotta enjoy them and just appreciate everyone’s effort today."
Former Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell was third, followed by two more Playoff drivers, Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin.
Chastain and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola led the most laps on the day – each out front 36 laps – in an afternoon that featured the most lead changes of the season (57) set by 17 different drivers.
Although it was a typically dramatic superspeedway ending, the action was tame by Talladega standards. Only one of the six caution periods was for a multi-car accident. Two were scheduled “stage breaks” and the other two for single car incidents. The final caution -which set up the two-lap shootout ending – came for Daniel Hemric’s stalled car on pit road.
That bunched up the field again and ultimately positioned Elliott (who restarted on the inside of the third row) to make his run forward. Blaney, who led 31 laps in the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford , had been trading the lead with Jones in the laps immediately before that final caution flag.
"I thought about it," Blaney said, of making a different move for the lead. "The second lane was kind of the strongest, definitely the second half of the race. And I thought about (throwing a block on Elliott) but when you go to the middle without a Ford or teammate behind you, the chances of getting split are so high.
"As much as I trust Chase, I don’t trust him enough for him not to take me three-wide and leave me in the middle so I chose to stay down in front of (fellow Ford driver) Michael (McDowell). He was awesome at pushing me on the last restart and giving me great shots. Just a little bit too late.
"Maybe I could have faked the top and gone to the bottom there on the front stretch, but I don’t know if I could have gotten there anyway, but overall, not a bad day. Just probably going to replay in my head five different things I could have done different."
It was a big boost for Elliott, who had a rough outing last week in the opening race of this Playoff round in Texas. Elliott crashed out and finished 32nd and came into Talladega ranked eighth – after earning the regular season championship and leading the standings for a season-best 23 weeks prior to Sunday.
The opening four 2022 Playoff races have been won by non-Playoff drivers – an unprecedented occurrence. So Elliott’s advancement to the next round is the first “automatic” move by a Playoff-eligible driver.
Beyond Elliott, Blaney now leads the points standings – 32 points ahead of Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Cindric in ninth place with the top eight drivers advancing to the Round of 8 next Playoff round.
Chastain is ranked third, followed by Hamlin and Penske Racing’s Joey Logano, who finished 27th on Sunday. Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, Hendrick Motorsports’ driver Kyle Larson – who finished 18th at Talladega – is ranked sixth in the standings, followed by Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe in that final eighth place position.
Cindric is tied with Briscoe in points. William Byron (-11), Christopher Bell (-33) and Alex Bowman (-54) complete the current Playoff 12.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver Bowman did not race this week as he is recovering from concussion-like symptoms after an accident in Texas last week. Team owner Rick Hendrick said Bowman would be re-examined by doctors this week in hopes of getting clearance to return to competition.
The next race, the Bank of America ROVAL 400, is Sunday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL (2 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – the final road course event of the season. Larson is the defending race winner. Blaney won the inaugural race at the Charlotte ROVAL and Elliott is a two-time winner there as well (2019 and 2020).