LINCOLN, Ala. -- In a frantic finish at Talladega, Chase Elliott made his move to the outside line with two laps to go, working the draft and taking a massive push from Erik Jones to get past Ryan Blaney before holding him off at the checkered flag to take his fifth win of the season and the second in his career at Talladega. Elliott becomes the very first playoff driver to win a race in the NASCAR playoffs, and his victory now locks him into the Round of 8.
After crashing out of the lead last week at Texas Motor Speedway, Elliott was put in a bind. The regular season champion lost a considerable amount of points, which put him in a precarious position entering an extremely uncertain race at Talladega Superspeedway. But just as he did in the Round of 16, Elliott responded in a huge way – and affirmed that this may very well be his championship to lose.
Yellawood 500 unofficial top 10
- #9 Chase Elliott
- #12 Ryan Blaney
- #34 Michael McDowell
- #1 Ross Chastain
- #11 Denny Hamlin
- #43 Erik Jones
- #38 Todd Gilliland
- #99 Daniel Suarez
- #2 Austin Cindric
- #14 Chase Briscoe
Restarting in the inside line with two laps to go, Elliott took an opening to cut to the outside from third in line, using a push from Erik Jones to get alongside race leader Ryan Blaney at the white flag. The two remained side-by-side all throughout the final lap until turn four, when Elliott was able to clear Blaney before beating him back to the finish line by a car length.
"It gets you through to the next one, and that's all you can ask for is to just have more opportunities. And that's all you can ask for is just to have more opportunities, and that's really what this is about," Elliott told NBC Sports when talking about what his win does for his pursuit of the championship. "... We're excited for these final handful of events, and hopefully we can make it out to Phoenix and give 'em a run."
Sunday's race at Talladega took place under an air of trepidation, with concussion-like symptoms sidelining playoff contender Alex Bowman and raising alarms among competitors about the safety of the Next Gen car. Collectively, it seemed as though the entire garage area spent 188 laps holding its breath waiting for a major accident to occur and to see whether or not everyone was able to climb out okay.
But that major accident -- with the pack blowing to smithereens and cars sustaining major impacts -- never truly occurred. Only two accidents occurred the entire race, with only one involving more than a single car: Harrison Burton was turned by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on lap 24, triggering an eight-car pileup in turn one.
What occurred for all 188 laps on Sunday was smart, clean, and disciplined racing. But it didn't come at the cost of intensity. There were 57 lead changes (the most of any race in 2022) among 17 different drivers, with much of the race run in two and sometimes three-wide formations and the lead constantly see-sawing between the leaders of the inside and outside lines.
Perhaps it was the drivers all using their heads given the circumstances they were racing under. Or maybe it was just sheer luck that by the end of the day, few were left with torn up racecars or having to lament a massive crash.
"It was intense racing. A lot of pushing there -- the bumps are big and the cars are moving around," third-place finisher Michael McDowell said. "I'm surprised we didn't have more incidents than we did."
The end of the race not devolving into a demolition derby actually solidified an overall trend that the 2022 season saw on superspeedways. After many years of Daytona and Talladega races featuring overtime finishes in bunches, three of the four superspeedway races ran only to regulation, with the Daytona 500 being extended just one lap by an overtime finish.
Of all of the playoff contenders who were able to compete on Sunday -- Alex Bowman notwithstanding -- Christopher Bell needed to have a great outing the most. After crashing out at Texas, Bell entered Talladega well below the Round of 8 cutoff line, and a strong run would have gone a long way towards making his points deficit a much more manageable one.
Things started off well when he won the pole, but everything turned on a round of green flag pit stops. Coming to pit road on lap 99, Bell locked up his brakes and spun on pit entry, barely avoiding the inside wall. To make matters worse, Bell was too fast entering the pits, meaning he had to come back to pit road in order to serve a penalty.
Bell would end up losing a lap that he would later make up, but he was never truly a factor again at the front and finished 17th. Now, after being one of the very best drivers in the Round of 16, Bell is in serious jeopardy of playoff elimination next week at the Charlotte Roval. Bell is 33 points below the cutoff line to make the Round of 8, and likely faces a must-win scenario in order to advance.
Bell will have company in that situation, as Alex Bowman is now 54 points below the cutoff line after missing a full race's worth of points. In a post-race press conference, car owner Rick Hendrick expressed optimism that Bowman would be able to return.
With his victory, Chase Elliott becomes the first driver this season to advance in the Cup Series playoffs by virtue of winning a race. Elliott is now at the top of the standings in the Round of 12, while Ryan Blaney (+32), Ross Chastain (+28), and Denny Hamlin (+21) all enjoy very comfortable points margins above the cutoff line.
As it stands, Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the final spot in the Round of 8, with Briscoe holding the tiebreaker. However, there's a chance the playoff bubble may shift later this week. William Byron, who is now 11 points below the cutoff line, is currently appealing a 25 point penalty for intentionally spinning Denny Hamlin at Texas. Should Byron and his team win their appeal, he would move up to 14 points above the cutoff line, while Briscoe and Cindric would both be 12 points below Daniel Suarez for the final spot in the next round.
Race results rundown
- Chase Elliott's victory is the 18th of his Cup career, which ties him on the all-time wins list with six different drivers. That group includes fellow Hendrick drivers Kyle Larson, Geoff Bodine and Kasey Kahne, as well as Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant, and Ryan Newman.
- With a sixth-place finish marking his 12th top 10 of the season, Erik Jones now has the most top 10s for the No. 43 in a single season since Richard Petty had 14 in 1987. The previous high since that point had stood since Bobby Hamilton had 11 top-10 finishes in 1996.
- Two drivers tied for the most laps led, with Ross Chastain (4th) and Aric Almirola (14th) both leading 36 laps each. For Almirola, that ties his season-high mark set just two weeks ago, when he also led 36 laps at Bristol.
- Todd Gilliland enjoyed a very strong run, finding his way to the front late and staying there with a seventh place finish. With Michael McDowell finishing third, that marked the second time this season that both Front Row Motorsports cars have finished in the top 10.
- After a third-place finish in the Xfinity race, Landon Cassill capped off a strong weekend by just missing out on a top 10 finish in 11th. While he's only run 13 races, Cassill's average finish of 21.5 is the best of his Cup career.
- Noah Gragson held down the fort for Alex Bowman's team, mixing it up in the lead pack and coming home 19th at the finish. Coincidentally, the last substitute driver of a Hendrick car was Bowman himself -- he got his break in a Cup car as the substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016, running 10 races with a best finish of sixth.
The Round of 12 concludes with a twisty-turvy race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, as the Cup Series hits the track's Roval configuration for the Bank of America 500k next Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on NBC.