HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — With the home crowd cheering his every move, Chase Elliott wanted this win so badly.
He saw Corey LaJoie coming up quickly in the rear-view mirror.
No way Elliott was letting him by.
The Georgia-born driver powered past the upset-minded LaJoie with just under two laps to go and crossed the finish line under yellow after a big block sent LaJoie smashing into the wall Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
It was Elliott’s first NASCAR Cup victory at what he considers his home track after coming up short on his first eight tries.
“I’ve witnessed guys win at their home track, and you could tell it meant a lot to them,” Elliott said. “But until you start competing at the sport’s highest stage, you don’t truly understand what it can mean for you. To have this moment is so special and one I’m grateful for.”
Elliott pulled back around in front of the main grandstand, greeted by a boisterous ovation from fans who cheered loudly every time he went to the front and seemingly stretched all the way to Dawsonville, the north Georgia town that produced the winner and his father, longtime NASCAR Cup star Bill Elliott.
“Awesome Bill From Dawsonville” won five times at the historic Atlanta track.
Now, his kid has one, too.
The Elliotts are the only Georgia-born drivers to win a Cup race in Atlanta. They are the third father-son duo to take the checkered flag at the 1.54-mile trioval, joining the Jarretts (Ned and Dale) and the Earnhardts (Dale and Dale Jr).
The wild capper to another eventful Atlanta race denied LaJoie the first victory of his career, which would’ve been a huge shocker for the low-budget Spire Motorsports team.
On a restart with three laps to go. LaJoie led the field from the inside lane and did everything he could to hold off Elliott. But, after they crossed the start-finish line for the next-to-last time, Elliott surged to the lead on the outside with a helpful push from Erik Jones.
LaJoie was setting up a good run on the leader as they took the white flag, looking to pass Elliott in the same spot where he gave up the lead.
Elliott slid up the banking to cut off his challenger. LaJoie, who has only one top-five finish in his career, ran out of room and smashed the outside wall.
Ross Chastain looked to make a move on Elliott, but the yellow lights flashed with No. 9 still nearly a car length ahead.
That was it. Elliott could finally relax, becoming the first three-time winner in a season that has produced 13 different winners.
Chastain was the runner-up, followed by Austin Cindric, Jones and Ryan Blaney.
LaJoie settled for the 21st spot.
“Obviously, I knew he was gonna have a big run. I tried to give him one good, aggressive block,” Elliott said. “I don’t know what else to do. You go for the win or you don’t. I’m going to choose option A every time.”
LaJoie, whose best career finish was a fifth-place showing at this year’s Atlanta spring race, nearly pulled off the most improbable victory of a wild season. He had no complaints about Elliott’s aggressive move.
“That was fun,” LaJoie said. “It’s nice to have that thing out front for once. I made my move. It didn’t work out.”
Even Rick Hendrick, who owns Elliott’s car, sympathized with LaJoie’s tough-luck finish.
“If we couldn’t win, I wanted them to win,” Hendrick said. “He drove a heck of a race. He looked as good as anybody in this field.”
Martin Truex Jr. was leading a tight pack at the front when Chastain caused his second wreck of the day with 14 laps to go.
A two-time winner this season, Chastain also has made plenty of enemies with his overly aggressive driving. He tapped the left rear quarter-panel of Denny Hamlin’s car, which sent the No. 11 into a spin that ruined his hopes of winning.
Truex led on the restart with eight laps to go, LaJoie pulled ahead on the backstretch, but the yellow flag came out again when Hamlin was bumped for a second time. This time, it was Christopher Bell trying to squeeze between Hamlin and Joey Logano, setting off a spin that took out all three cars.
Hamlin finished 25th.
A big wreck on the 91st lap was sparked by Chastain giving Truex a bump from behind coming through turn one.
Truex’s car began spinning and seven other drivers were collected in the melee, with Austin Dillon taking the biggest hit when he slammed nearly head-on into the outside wall.
Dillon was OK, but his No. 3 Chevrolet was done for the day — another tough blow for a driver who is getting increasingly desperate for his first win of the season to stake a claim to a playoff spot.
Dillon blamed Chastain for being far too aggressive, a familiar complaint against the driver of the No. 1 machine.
“We’re just a casualty of Ross Chastain again,” Dillon said after leaving the infield care center. “You want to race hard all day, but you’ve got guys like him out there wrecking half the field.”
Chastain remained in the race and was right there at the end, even with the front end of his car all taped up.
ODDS AND ENDS
There were 26 lead changes among 12 drivers. … Elliott led a race-high 96 laps. … Justin Haley turned in his second-best finish of the season in seventh place. His only other top 10 was a third-place showing in Darlington.
The Cup drivers will head to New Hampshire Motor Speedway next Sunday. Aric Almirola, who is stepping back from full-time racing at the end of this season, is defending champion on the 1.058-mile Loudon oval.
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