Ultimately, Chase Elliott and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 proved to be too much to overcome.
Only starting at the rear of the field for a pre-race technical infraction prevented Elliott from complete domination in the Season Finale 500. The eventual champion led 153 of the 213 laps but didn’t take the lead until lap 79.
Once out front, Elliott just couldn’t consistently be contained by Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin.
Keselowski appeared to have the best chance to catch Elliott in the closing laps, but it’s unclear what the Team Penske No. 2 had because he lost three to six positions every time they came down pit road, meaning the 2012 champion restarted outside of the top-5 more often than not.
He even won the second stage, but once again lost spots on pit road. Keselowski hadn’t reviewed the pit stops at the time of his post-race press conference.
“I feel like I did all I could do,” Keselowski said. “You know, with that in mind, you try to shake it off and move on. I mean, I can’t change anything about what happened, and I hate it for my guys that that’s the way it played out, but so it goes.”
Keselowski was posting some of the quickest lap times at the end of the race, but could only close to within two seconds of Elliott at the end.
“Obviously at the end of Stage 2, I was right where I wanted to be, in the lead, and we lost a spot, which is not fun,” Keselowski said. “But it’s a team effort, and just was tough to fight back through.
“We got up to second there at the end, and I feel like we were pretty equal. I would have loved to have had a chance to race it out with the 9 car, but that’s not the way it played out.”
Elliott actually made the winning pass on Logano with 42 laps to go, after the 22 cycled back out to the lead by undercutting the No. 9 by one lap during the final green flag pit stops. The track position ultimately made no difference as Elliott simply caught and overtook the 2018 champion.
Logano led 117 of the first 120 laps, and 125 overall, but just didn’t have enough once Elliott worked his way to the front.
He took the defeat in stride.
“We learned a lot about ourselves and learned that we are capable of,” Logano said. “We’re capable of executing when we needed to. We just need to go faster. That was the one thing. But I think overall there’s a lot to be proud of throughout the season, where we’ve come from, how much we’ve grown as a team, especially with the crew chief swap in the beginning of the season this year and without practice. That was a pretty big hurdle we had to jump.
“I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job through the playoffs to really come into our own. That makes me really excited about 2021 because we’re starting way further ahead than where we did last year, with the schedule being somewhat similar with limited practice sessions. I feel a lot better going into next year than what we did this year — a lot to be proud of.”
And then there was Denny Hamlin, who still remains the most decorated NASCAR driver without a Cup Series championship. At 39 years old, Hamlin has 44 Cup Series victories, but the championship eludes him.
Making his third championship race appearance, and his fourth time overall racing for the championship on the final weekend of the season, Hamlin finished fourth but failed to lead a single lap.
“I mean, up until the last stage, the leader was always 12 lengths in front of me, but there was always a car or two between,” Hamlin said. “I don’t know. I thought early on in the race we were pretty good. I think we caught (Logano) late in the run, but then I saw (Elliott) coming through the field and then I saw even on the long run he was reeling us all in.
“We just didn’t have enough car potential. Our balance was not bad, maybe a little bit off, but just not enough in reserve.”
For much of the race, Hamlin was the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver in the top-10, leading him to conclude that their organization just didn’t have the speed to contend for the championship.
“I think Penske and Hendrick both had two teammates inside the top 10 before we even got to our next best two other teammates,” Hamlin said. “Our organization has got to get a little bit better on these types of tracks, and especially if it’s going to be the deciding factor in the championship.
“We’ve just overall got to get a little bit better. I knew for me probably around lap 200 that we needed some special circumstances to kind of go our way.”
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