Chase Elliott did what no other playoff driver has been able to do yet in this postseason.
Did we expect anything else?
Elliott and his No. 9 Chevrolet made a championship move in the final two laps to change the complexion of Sunday’s race and the playoff standings all at once — and he ended up taking the checkered flag at a raucous Talladega Superspeedway.
“How about these fans, man,” Elliott told NBC Sports at the start-finish line, the checkered flag in his hand. The crowd erupted. NASCAR’s most popular driver then added, “You guys are what make this special to me.”
Elliott is now the only playoff driver to win a race in the 2022 Cup Series postseason, breaking a run of non-playoff drivers stunning the field: Erik Jones won at Darlington, then Bubba Wallace won at Kansas, then Chris Buescher won at Bristol.
But the buck stopped with Elliott — the NASCAR Cup regular-season champion and Cup wins leader (five) — and with the win he’s guaranteed a spot in the Round of 8.
How Elliott won was a display of masterful maneuvering: Stuck on the inside line, he got enough room to clear the No. 43 car of Erik Jones and lead the outside line. And then, somehow, Jones pushed — providing his Chevy teammate with enough momentum to snatch a win from Blaney that, for most of Stage 3, felt set in stone.
“That was a wild last couple of laps,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t super crazy about being on the bottom. And fortunately I just got clear enough off (Turn 2) to get in front of Erik, and he gave me some great shoves.”
He added: “These things are so hard to win. You gotta enjoy them. And I just appreciate everybody’s effort today.”
Blaney finished second. Michael McDowell finished third.
Ryan Blaney finishes oh-so-close again
For a moment, it looked as if it would all work out for Blaney.
The Team Penske driver of the No. 12 Ford — who has been on both the frustrating and fortunate ends of the unpredictable NASCAR Cup season — ran a race that couldn’t have gone more according to plan at Talladega Superspeedway for 186 laps.
He took a Stage 1 win away from Denny Hamlin by mere feet. He then fell back into the pack during Stage 2, biding his time per direction from interim crew chief Miles Stanley, and then led the bulk of the last 50 laps in a race that featured 57 lead changes and 17 different leaders.
But then came a final restart with six laps to go and that aforementioned Elliott move. Post-race, Blaney was asked if in those final laps he should’ve blocked Elliott, who was gaining momentum on the outside line while Blaney manned the inside.
“I definitely thought about it,” Blaney said, moments after watching the race’s final laps on replay in his camp. “The second lane was the strongest one the second half of the race. I thought about it, but if you go to the middle, and you don’t have a Ford or a teammate behind you, your chances of getting split are just so high. ... So I chose to stay in front of Michael (McDowell), and he was awesome pushing me in the last restart, giving me great shots. And I was just a little bit too late.”
He added with a smile to mask a palpable frustration: “I probably will replay in my head five different things I could’ve done differently, but overall not a bad day.”
How did the rest of the playoff field do?
Talladega proved fruitful for playoff drivers on Sunday. Seven of them finished in the Top 10. Beyond Elliott’s photo-finish win — which secured his spot in the Round of 8 despite just barely being above the cut-line points-wise — and Blaney’s second-place run, here’s where the other 10 ended up:
Ross Chastain finished fourth. He found himself at the front of many draft lines on Sunday, his patriotic paint design easy to spot. “Every point earned is just better,” Chastain said with a smile in a television interview post-race. “It’s never ending. You just always want more.”
Denny Hamlin finished fifth — the only Toyota to finish in the Top 10 on Sunday. “It’s so hard to pass,” Hamlin said post-race. He added, “Our goal going into the day was five stage points, and we got more than five in the first stage. We (decided to) punt in Stage 2, and then go try to get a good finish, and that’s what we did.”
Chastain’s TrackHouse Racing driver, Daniel Suarez, finished eighth. Austin Cindric finished ninth. Chase Briscoe finished 10th. William Byron finished 12th — a tough result considering the fact that he got 25 points deducted from the playoff chase after wrecking Hamlin under caution last week.
Pole winner Christopher Bell (17), Kyle Larson (18), Joey Logano (27) brought up the back of the pack of the playoff drivers. Alex Bowman did not race after suffering from concussion-like symptoms after his wreck at Texas last week.
Unofficial results from Talladega Superspeedway