TALLADEGA, Ala — Chase Elliott raced his way into the next round of the playoffs with a victory Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in the first clean race yet of this year's postseason.
Elliott was fifth on the final restart with two laps remaining and claimed control of the outside lane to stalk leader Ryan Blaney. The 2020 Cup champion surged ahead with a push from Erik Jones on the final lap, threw a block on Blaney’s attempt to reclaim the win and then beat Blaney to the finish line by .046 seconds.
Elliott is the first driver through five playoff races to automatically advance into the next round with a victory. The first four races were won by drivers not eligible for the championship in a chaotic start to the 10-race postseason.
NASCAR's new Next Gen suddenly developed a rash of problems, from mechanical failures, tire problems and unexplained fires, and the stiffness of the car has led to violent crashes that have injured at least three drivers. Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch are sidelined with concussions, and Cody Shane Ware raced Sunday with a broken foot. Busch has missed 11 consecutive races, while Bowman was injured just last week.
The Bowman concussion pushed the drivers to their breaking point as veterans began to openly criticize NASCAR's slow response to concerns they claim they've been raising from the early stages of the Next Gen's development.
On Saturday, the mild-mannered Elliott at last offered his opinion and chastised NASCAR for taking a step backward in safety. It was unusual offering of opinion by NASCAR's three-time most popular driver, who typically avoids controversial conversations.
But with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Bowman sidelined, Elliott made clear that the Next Gen needs to be fixed. His comments came amidst unfounded rumors the drivers were considering either some sort of boycott Sunday at Talladega, one of the most unpredictable and chaotic tracks on the calendar.
Yet all 37 drivers turned up at their cars on time Sunday, and while the race was calm and mostly crash-free, it wasn't because the competitors were deliberately playing it safe to send NASCAR a message. There were 18 lead changes and of the six cautions, only one was for a multi-car crash.
The final caution was because Daniel Hemric stalled on pit road with an engine problem with seven laps remaining. Blaney was the leader and NASCAR had to throw the caution because Hemric was stranded inside his car in a dangerous spot.
The restart for a final two laps was Blaney's to control, but Elliott played it perfectly for his fifth win of the season. The victory was a massive rebound after Elliott crashed while leading last week at Texas because of a tire failure, and it dropped him to the edge of playoff elimination.
Blaney was second for Team Penske and Michael McDowell was third for Front Row Motorsports as Fords settled for runner-up. Ross Chastain, winner at Talladega in the spring, was fourth for Trackhouse Racing and then Denny Hamlin was fifth and the highest finishing Toyota driver.
The elimination playoff race Sunday at The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The field will be trimmed from 12 to eight after the race. Kyle Larson is the defending race winner, while Chase Elliott has two wins on the hybrid course and Ryan Blaney won the inaugural 2018 event.