Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

TORRES: Instant Reaction on the Season Finale 500

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

After nine roller coaster months, the NASCAR Cup Series campaign finally came to an end Sunday with Chase Elliott hoisting the Bill France Cup.

Yes indeed, the 24-year-old won war as he’s no longer the bridesmaid, but perhaps one of the top guys in the sport. More important for the state of Georgia, he broke the sports curse that’s plagued them for nearly half a decade.

Such a feel good moment for the sport as the new era has officially begun with Jimmie Johnson, who finished fifth in his final start, ending his legendary NASCAR career to pursue IndyCar next season.

“I’m at a loss for words. This is unbelievable. Oh, my gosh. We did it. I mean, we did it. That’s all I’ve got to tell you. Unreal,” Elliott after winning the championship. “Championship crew chief, Alan Gustafson, is now a NASCAR Cup Series champion, and very deserving. I just can’t say enough about our group.

“I felt like we took some really big strides this year, and last week was a huge one. To come out of that with a win and a shot to come here and have a chance to race is unbelievable. Heck, I don’t know. I don’t even know. This is unreal.”

From a race quality perspective, it wasn’t dramatic as it boiled down to who made the fewest mistakes and who got clean air. At the end of the day, like it or not, this finale will be talked about for years to come. On that note, let’s dive into my takeaways to cap off NASCAR’s 72nd season.

The Championship Rally

The Season Finale 500 (yes, that was the race title) at Phoenix Raceway began with madness following Elliott starting the race at the rear of the field due to failing pre-race inspection twice.

Couldn’t have started worse by going from leading the 39-car field to the green flag to start at the back. That still didn’t phase the 10-time Cup Series winner as he worked his way up to the top-10 when the competition caution came out on Lap 30.

From there, he was able to claw his way up to third when Stage 1 was done. Right away, Elliott overcame one massive hurdle with ease. Yes, he wasn’t quite there with stage winner Logano, but the run was encouraging to start his championship quest.

Championship 4 Stage 1 Results: Logano (1st), Hamlin (2nd), Elliott (3rd) and Keselowski (4th)

Ping Pong Stage 2 for Car 2

Elliott’s rally would come into full fruition in Stage 2 when he caught Logano and took the top spot on Lap 120. Long run seems to favor him, but there was a lot of racing to go.

Meanwhile, Brad Keselowski had vibration issues and 10 laps after Elliott took the top spot, he came to pit road for a scheduled stop. Immediately, the crew checked on the tires to see if everything’s alright, but the problem was pitting way before the title contenders.

Yeah, he ended up going quicker for a cup of coffee, but was quickly humbled once the everyone else pitted. All it told me was that Keselowski was by far the weakest among the four contenders in the first half. I knew going into the race he was the long shot, but this solidified it in my book.

That was until Lap 174 when all of a sudden his No. 2 Discount Tire Ford Mustang took the lead away from Elliott. It helped to have a rather pathetic caution for James Davison hardly brushing the Turn 1 wall to bunch the field up, giving Keselowski another chance to pit to level up the playing field.

At the same time, improvements like that is why Keselowski’s fighting for a championship. Far from flashy, but stronger progressive. It was spotlighted when he took the lead on the last corner of the last lap in Stage 2 after Elliott took the lead seven laps prior.

It comes to show you things can change in a heartbeat and Keselowski’s stage was the symbol of such statement.

Championship 4 Stage 2 Results: Keselowski (1st), Elliott (2nd), Logano (3rd) and Hamlin (4th)

Pit Stop Woes for BK

I said last Sunday that the biggest reason why I wasn’t confident on Elliott being a favorite is his pit crew. I was wrong, but Keselowski’s crew decided to take over as the reason why a driver didn’t win the championship.

Following an amazing turnaround, Keselowski’s crew throughout the race just couldn’t get the job done. They just couldn’t and that was highlighted during green flag stops when he lost ground to the three title contenders.

You simply cannot make mistakes in the finale and more than anyone else, Keselowski’s crew did on multiple occasions and rather than celebrating with a big glass of Miller Lite, they left Phoenix disappointed.

Keselowski did show he can rally and gave an amazing showing which got him runner-up in the championship, but when the entire team isn’t clicking on all cylinders, it becomes an irreversible setback.

A Positive Closure to a Long Year

It wasn’t the greatest year for all of us with the pandemic and other drama which became the story, but I’m just happy NASCAR 2020 ended it on a positive note with the sport’s popular racer winning a championship.

Hendrick Motorsports gets its first Cup since Johnson in 2016 and Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson finally gets his elusive title. From being Kyle Busch’s first full-time crew chief to the man who helped Jeff Gordon get his mojo back to now a championship-winning crew chief.

For sure, mistakes were a plenty but the entire No. 9 team had heart. When people kept doubting them (including myself), they’ve finally found a way to keep themselves balanced and put on an all around super campaign.

Elliott won five times in 2020 and now with a championship under his belt in just his fifth season, it’s time to see how much more this team can accomplish in the future. Speaking of future, we’re living in it and Elliott happens to be one of those guys representing the now.

Championship 4 Final Standings: Elliott (1st), Keselowski (2nd), Logano (3rd) and Hamlin (4th)

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a four-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.