Elliott wraps up Nationwide title after Kenseth win
Homestead, Fla. – — Chase Elliott could let Matt Kenseth take a spin with the checkered flag. Even without the win, Elliott had a championship celebration waiting for him in Victory Lane.
Elliott finally got to enjoy his Nationwide Series title after he finished 17th in the season finale Saturday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He became the youngest champion in NASCAR history last week when he wrapped up the title at Phoenix International Raceway. All that was missing was the trophy presentation he got at Homestead.
"This week, more than anything, has allowed me to sit back and think, not only of all the people who have helped me this year, but there's a lot of great names who have helped me my entire career," Elliott said.
The 18-year-old rookie is the youngest driver to win a title in any of NASCAR's three national series. He broke the mark set by Brian Vickers, who was 20 when he won the Nationwide title in 2003.
Kenseth got the jump on the final restart in overtime to earn his first win of the season in any NASCAR series.
"It's been a long time since I've won a race in anything," Kenseth said. "Kyle (Larson) got around me on the second to last restart, and when he chose the bottom and I had Kyle (Busch) behind me, I knew we had a shot. I just had to get a better restart."
It was the final race for NASCAR's second-tier series under the Nationwide banner. It will be renamed the Xfinity Series next season.
Busch was second, and Larson finished third.
"Almost had second, but Kyle was able to squeeze around me," Larson said. "I probably could have shut the door on him, but we weren't going to win, so there was no point in maybe tearing up two cars."
With six wins from five drivers, Roger Penske clinched the Nationwide owner's title to made it 2-for-2 in championships this season. Team Penske won the IndyCar championship with Will Power in September, and a victory by Joey Logano in Sunday's Sprint Cup season finale would make Penske the only team owner to complete the sweep of major American racing titles.
"I've got two boxes checked off now," Penske said. "I get one more tomorrow."
Chevy won the manufacturers' championship, the first for its Camaro brand that debuted in 2013.
Elliott, the first Nationwide champion to also win the rookie of the year award, made his biggest mistake of the season when he smacked the wall late in the race making a hard push for a top-10 finish. He couldn't take the checkered flag — but he came away with a pretty nice consolation prize.
He grabbed the championship flag and kicked up a cloud of yellow smoke off a burnout on the painted grass.
The first-time champ needs to work on his celebrations — he smacked the wall during the burnout, bringing a smile from team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I know it was ugly. We didn't have a very good run, but we'll take it," Elliott said.
The Victory Lane bash capped a whirlwind year for Elliot, who didn't even have a ride last November. He turns 19 on Nov. 28.
He had three wins this season and 16 top-five finishes in 33 races. The son of Hall of Fame inductee and 1988 NASCAR champion Bill Elliott beat JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith for the title.
It was the first Nationwide title for the team owned by Earnhardt, his sister Kelley, and Rick Hendrick.
The Elliotts are the fifth father/son duo to win NASCAR national series championships. The others are Lee Petty and Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett and Dale Jarrett, David Pearson and Larry Pearson, and Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Elliott proved he's a champion driver, leaving open the question if he will move up to the elite Sprint Cup series. Larson spent just one season in Nationwide last year before he was promoted to Cup, and Elliott could be on that same fast track.
Hendrick has indicated they'll keep him in the second-tier series for now. Hendrick Motorsports does not have an open seat next year, and many believe Elliott could be Jeff Gordon's successor whenever he chooses to retire.
Xfinity now becomes just the third title sponsor in series history. Anheuser-Busch spent 26 years as title sponsor and Nationwide has been sponsor the last 11 but is moving into team sponsorship next season.
"We have truly enjoyed our time as the series sponsor and are grateful for the relationships we've made with the drivers, teams, owners, and fans," said Jim McCoy, director of sports marketing for Nationwide Insurance.
ESPN broadcasting last race
When the checkered flag waves on Sunday's race, ESPN will wave goodbye to NASCAR.
ESPN and NASCAR are headed toward their second split following the finale that will crown a Sprint Cup champion. NASCAR cut ties with ESPN and signed billion-dollar TV deals with NBC Sports Group and Fox Sports starting in 2015.
ESPN has been as much a staple in NASCAR the last 30 years as the Earnhardts and Pettys. ESPN televised the sport from 1981-2000 and 2007-2014; a marriage that helped a fledging network grow into a global force and let NASCAR blossom under needed national exposure.
"I don't think that NASCAR would be the sport and the entity it is today, and ESPN would not be the worldwide leader in sports today, if they didn't have each other," ESPN announcer Allen Bestwick said. "You can't separate the history of ESPN from NASCAR and the history of NASCAR from ESPN. They're just interlocked together in what's made them what they are today."
ESPN aired its first NASCAR race in March 1981 with tape-delayed coverage from Rockingham, North Carolina.
Then, only the Daytona 500 aired live in its entirety, and that had only started in 1979. Portions of other select races aired on a delayed basis, sometimes weeks later, on network television.
ESPN aired its first live flag-to-flag telecast of a NASCAR Cup race on Nov. 8, 1981, from Atlanta.
From there, the relationship was off and racing — Sunday's broadcast will mark ESPN's 398th Cup race. ESPN aired 262 in the 1981-2000 era and the rest in the current eight-year contract that started in 2007.
ESPN's racing reporters, many who are sticking with the network in other sports, wanted the focus on championship weekend.
"We're not here to be the story, we're here to cover the story," ESPN reporter Jerry Punch said.
NASCAR viewership during the Chase is up 3 percent from last season (4,318,000 viewers vs. 4,194,000) making it the most-viewed since 2011.
NASCAR also did not re-sign with Turner Sports this season after eight years.
The 10-year deal with NBC Sports Group begins in 2015 and gives the network the final 20 Sprint Cup Series races of the season and final 19 Nationwide races. NBC last broadcast races in 2006 before ESPN took over its portion of the schedule.
Fox Sports has a deal for the first five months of Cup races beginning with the 2015 season, and it also runs through 2024.
NBC Sports paid $4.4 billion for its rights and the Fox Sports deal is now worth $3.8 billion.
It puts NASCAR at $820 million a year for the length of the 10-year contracts.
John Skipper, president of ESPN, said the network will continue to cover NASCAR when its deal expires.
"It's bittersweet to wish them goodbye," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "We're still partners in other things together."