|PHOTO: Michael Harvey Media, @mlharvey00|
by Brock Beard
Chase Elliott picked up the 5th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway when his #9 NAPA / Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Chevrolet fell out under the Damaged Vehicle Policy (DVP) after 113 of 367 laps.
The finish, which came in Elliott’s 248th series start, was his first of the season and first since June 20, 2021 at Nashville, 46 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 5th under the DVP, the 35th for the #9, and the 829th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 8th under the DVP, the 58th for the #9, and the 1,857th for Chevrolet.
Elliott stormed into Darlington on the heels of a series-high four wins – three of them during an impressive five-race summer stretch where he came home no worse than 2nd. Following the streak’s end at Pocono, where he inherited the victory after Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch’s double-disqualification, he remained the series point leader with a 15-point gap over Joey Logano.
Last year at Darlington, Elliott began the “Desi9n to Drive” campaign in collaboration with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where both his race car, uniform, and helmet would be designed by a child at the hospital. This year’s winner is 16-year-old Dani Gamel of Sharpsburg, Georgia, who has been fighting Leukemia for three years. Gamel’s pink paint scheme included a vibrant combination of puppies, paw prints, and flowers.
Despite the past Darlington success of both he and his father, Elliott began the weekend noticeably down on speed. He ranked just 14th in points and only managed 23rd in qualifying with a speed of 165.877mph (29.646 seconds). Elliott was rumored as a possible entry in the XFINITY race on Saturday in JR Motorsports’ #88 Chevrolet, which was washed out of the spring race, but the car wasn’t entered.
Securing the 36th and final starting spot in the shortest-ever field for a Southern 500 was Playoff contender Daniel Suarez, whose #99 Jockey Chevrolet was prohibited from qualifying due to three pre-qualifying inspection failures. In addition to the ejection of his car chief and losing pit selection, Suarez would have to perform a pass-through penalty after taking the green on Sunday. Suarez would start alongside B.J. McLeod, who incurred a redundant tail-end penalty for unapproved adjustments, his #78 Blaster Ford having also failed inspection twice.
Suarez and McLeod remained in the final row for the initial start, Suarez last across the stripe 3.093 seconds back of the lead and just eight-hundredths back of McLeod. Suarez then slowed and pulled down pit road for his pass-through, leaving him 17.509 seconds back of the leader as he completed Lap 1 on pit road, 12.596 back of McLeod. Suarez came off pit road on Lap 3 and merged into traffic just behind the leaders off Turn 2. The next time by, a gathering rain down the frontstretch drew the caution, putting Suarez back on the lead lap by the 10th circuit.
On Lap 12, Corey LaJoie took over last after near disaster on his pit stop. Leaving his stall in the #7 Built.com Chevrolet, his crew noticed the left-rear wheel was still loose, forcing him to stop and back into his stall to get it tightened. LaJoie held the spot until Lap 15, when Suarez retook the spot, followed by McLeod on Lap 16. McLeod and Suarez traded the spot once more through Lap 18, when McLeod’s #78 now trailed Suarez by 0.424 second. By Lap 26, McLeod was still within shouting distance of 35th place, now held by Landon Cassill in the #77 Voyager: Crypto For All Chevrolet. This kept McLeod on the lead lap when the competition caution fell on Lap 36.
During caution-flag pit stops, the last spot went to Cody Ware’s #51 Nurtec ODT Ford on Lap 37. But Kevin Harvick had a slow stop for issues with the left-front tire on his #4 Busch Light Retro Ford. Harvick rushed past on the restart, dropping McLeod back to last on Lap 40, where he now raced Ware for 35th. By Lap 59, Ware opened up a 1.098 second advantage over McLeod and soon passed teammate J.J. Yeley in the #15 Jacob Companies / Parts Plus Ford for 34th. With the pass made, McLeod began to reel in Yeley, drawing within 0.485 second by Lap 66. The next time by, race leader William Byron put McLeod a lap down off Turn 2, then caught Yeley off Turn 4. McLeod had yet to pass Yeley on Lap 69, when Chris Buescher began a round of green-flag stops.
The first driver with on-track issues was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., whose #47 Kroger / Irish Spring Chevrolet cut down a tire and possibly damaged the suspension, putting him in last on Lap 75, a full three laps down. He returned to the track and was back up to speed by Lap 78, when he was a full seven laps behind. Seconds later, Kyle Larson’s #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet pulled down pit road complaining of engine issues. The crew lifted the hood and checked the error codes, then sent him back out in 35th, three laps down. For some reason, the car was now back up to speed, though now in position to become the first driver since Darrell Bryant in 1976 to sweep both last-place finishes in the Cup races at Darlington.
Meanwhile, Chase Elliott had still yet to contend for the lead when, on Lap 113, he bounced off the Turn 1 wall, then spun in the path of Chase Briscoe’s #14 HighPoint.com Ford. The two may have made contact, though the most serious damage was to the right-rear suspension of Elliott’s car, the wheel pointed the wrong way from a toe link issue. Elliott made it to pit road, where the newly increased ten-minute “Crash Clock” began to tick down. But the time still passed too quickly, and the crew removed several damaged suspension pieces from the right-rear. On Lap 120, Elliott was down to his final minute, just one lap from taking last from Stenhouse. The next time by – at the very moment he took last – the crew chief said, “That’s it fellas.” On Lap 124, Elliott went behind the wall, and was declared out on Lap 198.
Also declared out with Elliott was Stenhouse, whose lapped car clobbered the wall off Turn 2, but didn’t draw a caution flag. Cody Ware endured two similar hits in the same spot, ultimately leaving him in 32nd. Between the two came J.J. Yeley and Kevin Harvick, who just minutes apart each suffered frightening fires reportedly caused by dislodged exhaust pipes in their rocker panels. Harvick climbed from his car on the apron of Turn 1 while Yeley, whose car also ignited earlier in the race, had to be helped from his.
Pulling a surprise win was Erik Jones, who became the 17th different Cup Series winner in just 27 races this season. While eliminated from the Playoffs just last week, Jones scored the first win for the reincorporated Petty-GMS Racing team, and brought the iconic #43 back to Darlington’s victory lane exactly 55 years to the day of Richard Petty’s lone Southern 500 victory in 1967. The win was also the second Southern 500 victory of Jones’ career, following his most recent 2019 victory. Both times, he qualified 15th on the grid.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
36) #9-Chase Elliott / 113 laps / dvp
35) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 164 laps / crash
34) #15-J.J. Yeley / 236 laps / exhaust
33) #4-Kevin Harvick / 274 laps / exhaust
32) #51-Cody Ware / 331 laps / crash
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Live Fast Motorsports (6)
2nd) Hendrick Motorsports (4)
3rd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Spire Motorsports (3)
4th) Penske Racing, Trackhouse Racing (2)
5th) 23XI Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Hezeberg (1)
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (12)
2nd) Ford (11)
3rd) Toyota (4)
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP