Chase Elliott USATSI NASCAR Cup Series
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Truly elite athletes reach a point in their career where the perception of them begins to shift. They transform in front of our eyes from someone great to one of the best of their generation, period.

We may look back on Sunday as the moment Chase Elliott might have taken that step.

The NASCAR Cup Series Most Popular Driver entered Talladega Superspeedway on the ropes after winning the regular season title. Three DNFs in five races peaked last Sunday with a hard crash out of the lead at Texas Motor Speedway, leaving him in serious danger of early playoff elimination.

The pressure was on for Elliott to deliver a calm, uneventful race to right the ship. Marching forward from his 16th starting spot, he stayed ahead of any trouble in the YellaWood 500 to notch a race-high 18 points during the first two stages. It was an important cushion that stopped the bleeding and set him up to get aggressive later on.

"I feel like I've been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing," Elliott said. "It's going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don't. That's just part of the deal."

Going on to lead 10 laps, Elliott was a step behind the leaders until a late caution for Daniel Hemric's stalled car gave him one last chance. His No. 9 Chevrolet restarted as the third car on the inside line, far from ideal with just two laps left in the race.

By the time the cars reached the backstretch? He was third. By the white flag? Up to second. And by the checkered, Elliott bested good buddy Ryan Blaney by just .046 seconds.

The move on the high side, pairing with Erik Jones, was the right move at the right time. Only a driver of Elliott's skill could have executed, the crowd going wild with well over 100,000 in attendance at one of NASCAR's crown jewel events.

"How about these fans, man?" Elliott said after climbing out of his car. "That's unreal. Moments like that, you have to really cherish."

They also turn your postseason around. Suddenly, Elliott has a free pass into the Round of 8, a series-best five wins and is well positioned for a third straight Championship 4 appearance. A win there gives him two titles in three years, tying Kyle Busch for the most among active drivers in an elimination-style format designed to prevent repeat winners.

That's pushing Elliott into uncharted territory, just like his newfound voice this weekend among drivers advocating for safety after Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman was hurt at Texas. By claiming "I just hate to see the sport go backward," this 26-year-old stepped forward, fully embracing a leadership role.

It's what you expect from the best athletes. Can Elliott, now an 18-time winner in the Cup Series, go ahead and finish taking this step, leaving Phoenix a champion again in November?

"We're excited for these final handful of events," Elliott said. "Hopefully, we can make it out to Phoenix and give them a run."

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Green: No injuries. Talladega is known for the Big One, a multi-car wreck that wipes out half the field and often has one driver flipping into the great unknown. But the race was tame Sunday, producing just one smaller wreck (eight cars) and an isolated one-car incident. It was a sigh of relief for a sport that has seen safety concerns reach a fever pitch over the past few months.

Yellow: Ryan Blaney. Blaney is in great position to advance to the Round of 8 after a second-place Talladega finish left him 32 points above the cut line. His 31 laps led were the most for him in a single race since Richmond back in April.

But Blaney has to wonder what he has to do to reach victory lane at this point, the only winless playoff driver remaining. Losing out to good friend Elliott added some extra salt in the wound: "It just stinks," he said, "To be that close."

Red: Ty Gibbs. A wreck not of his making wrapped up a tough week for Gibbs, who was assessed a $75,000 fine by NASCAR earlier this week for slamming Ty Dillon during an active Texas pit road. The contact could have hurt an innocent crew member -- not a good look for Kyle Busch's likely 2023 replacement who now has four DNFs after his first 11 Cup Series starts.

Speeding Ticket: Christopher Bell. Bell won the pole, his season-best fourth of the year but never led a single lap. Instead, it was a disappointing run that reached rock bottom when Bell spun on pit road entry during a green flag stop in stage two.  

"Just as soon as I went to the brakes," Bell said, "The rears locked up. And I was just along for the ride from that point on."

It added insult to injury after poor strategy moves by Bell and crew chief Adam Stevens, never leaving the No. 20 Toyota team in position for stage bonuses. The end result is a must-win situation entering the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval his weekend for Bell to advance; he's 33 points below the playoff cut line.


The lone major wreck on Sunday was sparked by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pushing rookie Harrison Burton just a bit too hard entering turn one.

"These things happen so fast," Burton explained, "And all of a sudden, you're sideways. You know you got hit and you don't understand what really caused it."

The rookie now has three DNFs in his last six races, all for crashes as he suffers through a trying first year on the Cup level running for the legendary Wood Brothers.