By: Mitchell Breuer
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season ended Sunday, as Chase Elliott captured his first championship at Phoenix Raceway.
For the most part, the afternoon was tame with a lot of the drama coming before the start with the No. 9failing pre-race inspection twice and having to start in the rear. They did not see much of an effect from the penalty, as by Lap 30,he was already up to tenth and, ended the first stage in third. The rest of the day, he was upfront, and aside from the occasional battle with a Team Penske driver, Elliott found himself in the lead.
It was the beginning of the third stage that really signaled it might be his day to shine, as just as he did a week ago at Martinsville Speedway, he drove away from the field.
Joey Logano led the entire first stage, but fell off after concerns of a vibration, made a last-ditch effort for the win by pitting early and trying to gain track position on the final round of green-flag pit stops. The move worked, grabbing the lead, but they could not maintain it.
His Team Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, seemed like he was the only one that might have a chance, as he was able to move past Elliott to win the second stage. However, problems with his pit crew losing him time ultimately did him in. After suffering the same fate on his final stop, the chances of another championship faded, and he could only work his way back to second.
Where was Denny Hamlin? Despite coming in as a favorite, he proved to have the weakest performance. The No. 11 was not bad; they were a top-five car that finished fourth, but Hamlin’s good day was not great, which is what it needed to be.
Something that did not help Hamlin, Keselowski, or Logano was the lack of a late yellow, contrasting every other race during the weekend. In fact, there was only one “natural” caution all day that occurred in Stage 2. Another thing absent during throughout all 312 laps was a spoiler.
For most of the race, the top-four was only occupied by those battling for the championship. Kevin Harvick, who many thought would contend, was a non-factor, leading zero laps and finished seventh, which is around where he ran all-day. Ironically, Jimmie Johnson, who was running in his final race as a full-time driver in NASCAR, scored the highest result of those not eligible for the title.
It is interesting because without the circumstances in place, it probably would have been considered a dull race. However, with everything going it felt like an iconic day for the sport. Maybe this is just me but, the feeling was similar to the 1992 season-finale.
Johnson playing the role of a retiring Richard Petty, with Elliott being Jeff Gordon, instead of starting his career, but beginning his legacy with his first championship. The ending coming with Johnson and Elliott, when all was said and done, parked across from each other, in what felt like a passing of the torch moment.