ATLANTA – Sure, it was a wild NASCAR Cup season, as it seemed everyone on the field was capable of picking up the checkered flag.
In all the excitement, one driver emerged as the clear favorite.
Chase Elliott is the man others are chasing.
The 26-year-old became the first three-time winner in the Cup series with a thrilling achievement on his home track on Sunday, making a timely interception on the final lap to fend off Corey LaJoie’s bid to be the most unlikely winner in a year full of surprises.
Elliott checked another box on his increasingly impressive resume on the win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with his father Bill as the only Georgia-born driver to go ahead on the historic track.
That made for a noisy celebration in front of the main grandstand, where Elliott celebrated with a crowd cheering on every move of No. 9 Chevrolet.
But emotions aside, this is another great performance of NASCAR’s most established driver – the kind that has become the norm rather than the exception.
“I just saw how he looked all day,” said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, now vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. “You could hear it in his voice over the radio. He was just very focused and determined.”
Elliott won the first two rounds of the race in Atlanta. He led 96 of 260 laps, more than twice as many as anyone on the tricky, high bench track. And finally, after passing LaJoie in less than two laps and still picking up the white flag in front, he aggressively slid the track into Turn 1 to prevent LaJoie from pulling in the same move.
LaJoie, who had only one top-five finish in his career, stayed on the gas, ran out of the room and slammed into the wall. Elliott quickly ran away unscathed, his victory assured as soon as the yellow flag appeared.
“There’s a lot of motivation behind it and confidence that goes into it,” Gordon said. “And now confidence will only build with the team. That’s a good combination to have at this point in the season.”
Elliott was somewhat apologetic about his closing of the move, but LaJoie had no complaints.
It’s just a nice, hard career – and Elliott is as good as anyone in that department.
“I hate to throw a megablock like that,” he said. “But, heck, we’re on the last lap. … The guy is coming with a massive run. Am I taking a chance of crash when I threw it up in front of him? Absolutely. Pero hindi ko akalain. Babatukan I would still be him if I let him lead there. “
In addition to his wins in Dover, Nashville and Atlanta, Elliott has a runner-up finish on Road America, a fourth-place showing on the Circuit of the Americas and a fifth-place result from Darlington.
He had seven other top-10 finishes and just missed another with 11th in Phoenix. He has only been placed out of the top 20 four times in 19 races.
What’s even more impressive about Elliott’s performance is that it comes in a season with 13 different wins already, including five drivers claiming their first race victory.
“There were a lot of winners,” Kurt Busch said, “but Chase Elliott has been a consistent rock.”
With a comfortable lead in standings points and a playoff spot that is all locked, Elliott certainly wants a second Cup championship to add to what he got in 2020.
But crew chief Alan Gustafson said it was too early to start looking ahead. There are still seven races to go in the regular season, starting with next weekend’s event at the 1.058-mile oval in Loudon.
“A lot of things can happen,” Gustafson said. “Just focus on trying to improve. There are still things we can do better.”
Elliott has never won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, managing a top five appearances in eight Cup appearances.
Of course, the Dawsonville native had a similar record on his home track before Sunday’s victory.
With a mustache that seems exemplary to Atlanta Braves rookie pitcher Spencer Strider, Elliott hopes to continue what has been a winning run for sports in his home state.
The Braves are the reigning World Series champions. The Georgia Bulldogs won the national college football title in January.
A few weeks ago, Elliott made a promotional appearance in Atlanta with the championship trophies of both teams, including the Cup he won two years ago.
“The way the fans, the way the Atlanta Braves organization and the University of Georgia keep me as part of the family is really special and meaningful to me,” Elliott said. “Ultimately, I’m just a fan of them. I’ve grown up watching them. I think it was really cool to include me and my team.”
Actually, he fits.
Who knows? Elliott may have another trophy to show before the end of the year.