It's been a while since 19-year-old Chase Elliott has been to victory lane, but on Friday night the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion found something of the sort of crushing form he'd enjoyed in 2014 to claim his first win of the season under the floodlights at Richmond International Raceway.
CLICK: Full NASCAR Xfinity Series race results from Richmond International Raceway.
"Man, we've had a couple chances [to win in 2015 before this] but things just didn't go our way," said Elliott, who has ended a 39-race winless drought to claim his fourth victory in 58 starts in the second-tier championship, ahead of his promotion to full-time Cup status in 2016 taking over the #24 from the retiring Jeff Gordon.
"We've had a couple of opportunities this year to win races and I've done my fair share of messing that up," he admitted. "That's just racing sometimes and sometimes things just don't go your way.
"These guys right here won the race for us, our pit stops were just phenomenal," he added, gesturing at the JR Motorsports pit crew celebrating with him in victory lane, including team co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. "This is amazing."
"Chase did a great job," said Earnhardt. "It's been a difficult season for them but I think that they may be starting to get their legs and start to maybe make a run and put some pressure on those guys."
Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch started the Virginia529 College Savings 250 from pole position after having earlier topped qualifying with a lap of 22.118s (122.073mph) on the three-quarter-mile oval, taking his second series pole of the year and his 45th pole in 304 starts by just one hundredth of a second ahead of Penske's Joey Logano.
While Busch maintained his lead at the start, there was an immediate multi-car wreck after the green flag that swept up Joey Gase, John Wes Townley, Benny Gordon, David Starr and Jimmy Weller, followed by a second caution on lap 17 for Starr then suffering a blown tyre and hitting the wall in turn 3.
Busch continued to lead with Richard Childress Racing's Brian Scott having found his way past Logano for second in his 200th Xfinity Series race appearance. Another caution on lap 44 for debris after Elliott Sadler suffered a cut tyre and spun. The caution allowed the field to make their first mass visit to pit road, with Busch, Scott and Logano winning the race back out on track ahead of Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon (RCR) and Regan Smith (JR Motorsports). Scott briefly wrested the lead for the first time from Busch at the restart: the #54 immediately hit back and got back out in front, but by lap 82 the balance of power had shifted and when Scott went to the front again this time Busch wasn't able to respond and indeed he soon slipped another place to third behind Chase Elliott and then down to fourth as he was passed by Elliott's team mate, late model racer Josh Berry making his first Xfinity appearance of the season.
"When I passed Kyle Busch, I was like, 'Holy cow, I just passed Kyle Busch!" Berry said with a laugh after the race.
"He did a great job. Drove by me," complimented Busch.
Berry continued his surge and was soon up to second place and the only man capable of eating into the big lead that Scott had built up, but the green flag run finally came to an end with a caution for Jeremy Clements crashing in turn 4 on lap 135. Scott and Smith won the race off pit road to take the restart ahead of Elliott, Logano and Berry with Smith taking the lead in the short green flag spell before the cautions were back out for Sadler suffering a second mishap of the night with a spin on the frontstretch on lap 160.
Another round of pit stops enabled Chase Elliott to take the lead for the first time of the night at the restart on lap 169, and he would prove to be unshakeable for the remaining 83 laps all the way to the chequered flag. The best opportunity that Regan Smith had to get around his team mate was at a restart following a caution (for Ryan Truex spinning in turn 3) and final round of pit stops on lap 226. Elliott was more than up to the challenge and pulled away from the field, while Kyle Busch recovered from his mid-race slump to pick up second place ahead of Scott and Logano. The JGR of Erik Jones successfully pipped Smith for fifth place with Josh Berry finishing in seventh ahead of RCR's Dillon brothers, Ty and Austin.
"We always want to come and give it our best shot to win, but everybody brought it this weekend," said Elliott, who is the first Xfinity regular to win a race at Richmond in the last 23 events here - all the rest having been claimed by a Cup driver.
"A great race car; like I said the pit stops were phenomenal," he continued. "I'm just super excited to get back into victory lane."
"I don't know where the long run speed went," said second-place man Busch, clearly frustrated by the uneven run during the night. He'll start Saturday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase race from fourth place.
"It was an awesome run," said Berry, arguably the star of the night after Elliott but put on the back foot near the end by a slow final pit stop. "I need to do better on restarts and I need to do better on pit road. Then I really think we might have had a shot to win the race.
"We're looking for partner to do full-time next year," Berry added. "I hope I helped that cause tonight. I'm just a short-track racer at heart, so tonight played into my hands. I've still got a lot to learn on the bigger tracks, but this was a blast tonight."
In the Xfinity Series championship standings, Elliott's victory means that he moves up into second place and is just 21 points away from the points leader Chris Buescher who finished the race in tenth. Ty Dillon drops down to third in the standings despite finishing in eighth on Friday. Regan Smith is the only other driver within a hundred points of Buescher with eight races remaining in the championship. In the owner's standings, Roger Penske's #22 (driven by Logano) has a huge 82 points over the JGR #54 (Busch) and the rest of the field headed by the Jack Roush #60 (Buescher).
The next race in the championship is the Furious 7 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 19.
See full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and updated NASCAR Xfinity Series championship standings.
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