He started out the year in high school. Now, he is a champion.
As an 18-year-old, most don’t focus on winning national championships. But then again, Chase Elliott is definitely not like an 18-year-old. With a fifth-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway, he has locked up the NASCAR Nationwide Series champion – becoming the youngest in series history.
The driver of the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet has driven a near-perfect season in his rookie season in the Nationwide Series. Locking up JR Motorsports‘ first title since the team’s inception in 2006, Elliott scored three victories throughout the year as he holds a 52-point lead over teammate Regan Smith heading into Homestead. Entering Phoenix, he needed to outrun Smith by just one position to lock up the championship, and he did just that.
But Elliott didn’t do this on his own. Crew chief Greg Ives and he had a special bond throughout the year that was unlike any other. Even when they struggled in a race, the pair came back to finish inside of the top 10 on a consistent basis. Since taking the points lead at Chicago over the summer, they haven’t looked back, with just one finish outside of the top 10 (at Indianapolis).
Although all eyes were on Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch had a fierce battle to the finish. During a green-white-checkered finish, Busch held the lead, but Keselowski was able to get around him with one lap to go to take the checkered flag for the fifth time this year. Busch had the dominant car throughout the day – leading 187 of the 206 laps, yet he wasn’t able to hold off the No. 22 car, who was going to finish over two seconds behind the leader had the caution not come out.
Entering Phoenix, Team Penske‘s No. 22 Ford was ahead by 26 points over Joe Gibbs Racing‘s No. 54 Toyota. Now, they have all but locked up the owner’s championship heading into the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week with a 29-point advantage.
The race lasted approximately two hours and three minutes, which was 25 minutes longer than the spring race at the track. Throughout the 200-mile event, there were six lead changes among four different drivers, which is just under the track average of 6.85 in 26 races since 1999.
Smith is second in points to Elliott, and is 13 points ahead of third-place Brian Scott, who finished seventh at Phoenix. Elliott Sadler is just one point behind Scott with Ty Dillon trailing him by nine points for third in the standings. Trevor Bayne, Chris Buescher, Brendan Gaughan, Ryan Reed and Dylan Kwasniewski round out the top 10 in the point standings with one race left in the Nationwide Series season.
Mackena Bell made her Nationwide Series debut for Rick Ware Racing. Although she finished eight laps down, she was able to have a clean race after running the K&N Pro Series East for the past three years. But Bell doesn’t have anything lined up for next year, thought she was able to gather enough funding to run this one event.
Also, although Smith was not able to capture the championship this year, he is set to rejoin the organization in 2015. He put up a great fight with Elliott, yet he wasn’t able to seal the deal. Smith recorded his 25th top-10 result of 2014 – finishing just behind Elliott throughout the season.
Alex Bowman, making his second start for JR Motorsports, was running in the third position with just two laps to go. After having an impressive showing on Saturday afternoon, the No. 5 car ran out of fuel – putting an abrupt end to what would have been his first top-10 finish since Kentucky in September of 2013.
Brennan Newberry was set to have a career day at Phoenix. He qualified a career-best 19th after being quick in practice on Friday. However, on Lap 36, Newberry’s No. 77 Chevrolet slammed into the wall in Turn 4 after blowing a right-front tire. His car was on the way back to the garage when it caught fire while attached to a safety vehicle. The safety crews brought it back to the garage area, but it continued to go up in smoke … just like his day.
JD Motorsports was also set to have a solid day. Landon Cassill was running in 16th when a tire blew on his No. 01 Chevrolet. But that wasn’t the worst part of the race for the small team. Jeffrey Earnhardt, who was scheduled to race the car he ran at Bristol in August (finished 12th). Just before the race, the crew found issues with the engine of the No. 4 car – leading them to not run a single lap during the race. This is the second time in three weeks that Earnhardt has finished last in a race.
Underdog Performer of the Race
Jeremy Clements finished 11th on Saturday afternoon in his family-owned No. 51 car. He has two top-10 finishes on the year at Road America and Daytona, but this was his best result at a non-restrictor plate oval. Clements sits 15th in points entering the final race of the year.
Blake Koch was able to earn a top-20 result for TriStar Motorsports at Phoenix. Prior to this weekend, his best finish of the season was a 19th-place result at Kentucky in July. However, with an 18th-place finish, Koch is hoping to be able to compete in more events in 2015.
Double Duty and Start-and-Park Effect
Busch, Keselowski, Bowman, Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson, Mike Bliss, JJ Yeley, Cassill and Mike Wallace are each running the Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix on Sunday afternoon. Keselowski was the only driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup entered in Saturday’s event. Erik Jones, who won the Camping World Truck Series race on Friday evening, raced in the Nationwide Series contest on Saturday along with John Wes Townley and Brennan Newberry.
The Final Word
What can’t you say about Elliott? He’s an incredible young man, and he is a great person to have as the final Nationwide Series champion. As we say goodbye to Nationwide Insurance as the title sponsor of NASCAR’s second-tier division, we have the youngest champion in the sport’s history across one of the top-three series.
Elliott’s season was outstanding. He was able to score three victories, and with one race left, there’s no reason he can’t win at Homestead and finish the season out
with a bang. He’ll be returning to the No. 9 car next year. However, he will have a new crew chief in 2015 with Ernie Cope going to the top of the pit box. The two are expected to pick up where they left off. Cope has won five events this year with the team’s No. 5 crew. With high expectations heading into next year, there will be plenty of eyes on the two.
But before we get ready for 2015 – there is still one race remaining in the season.
Scott, Sadler and Dillon are in the midst of an extremely tight battle in the driver standings. The three are separated by just nine points as they follow the JR Motorsports tandem. Sadler finished third at Phoenix, which was one of his best runs throughout the year. Although he is moving to Roush Fenway Racing in 2015, the 39-year-old has struggled this year and wants to leave JGR on top.
As for the Richard Childress Racing drivers of Scott and Dillon, they are poised to be championship contenders in 2015. The two have been extremely consistent in 2014 with an average finish of 9.3 and 9.6, respectively. If they can finish up the year on a high note at Homestead, Dillon and Scott will have plenty of momentum heading into next year, which is exactly what they need.