In wild NASCAR year, Chase Elliott is steady as a rock

Sure, it’s been a wild NASCAR Cup season, with seemingly everyone in the field capable of taking the checkered flag. Through all the chaos, one driver has emerged as the clear favorite. Chase Elliott is the guy everyone else is chasing.

The 26-year-old became the first three-time winner in the Cup series with a thrilling victory at his home track Sunday, making a timely block on the final lap to fend off Corey LaJoie's bid to become the most unlikely winner yet in a year filled with surprises.

Elliott checked off another box on his increasingly impressive resume with the win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, joining his father Bill as the only Georgia-born drivers to take first at the historic track.

That made for a raucous celebration in front of the main grandstand, where Elliott celebrated with a crowd that cheered every move by the No. 9 Chevrolet.

But setting emotions aside, it was another masterful performance by NASCAR's steadiest driver — the kind that have become the norm rather than the exception.

“I just saw a look in his eye all day,” said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, now the vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. "You could hear it in his voice over the radio. He was just very focused and determined.”

Elliott won the first two stages of the Atlanta race. He led 96 of the 260 laps, more than twice as many as anyone else on the treacherous, high-banked track. And at the end, after surging by LaJoie with just under two laps to go and taking the white flag still out front, he aggressively slid up the track going into Turn 1 to prevent LaJoie from pulling off the same move.

LaJoie, with only one top-five finish in his career, stayed on the gas, ran out of room and smacked the wall. Elliott sped away unscathed, his victory assured as soon as the yellow flag came out.

“Just a lot of motivation behind it and confidence coming into it," Gordon said. "And now the confidence is only going to build along with the team. That's a great combination to have at this point in the season.”

Elliott was a bit apologetic about his closing move, but LaJoie had no complaints. It was just good, hard racing — and Elliott is as good as anyone in that department.

“I hate to throw a megablock like that," he said. “But, heck, we're on the last lap. ... The guy is coming with a massive run. Am I taking a chance of crashing when I threw it up in front of him? Absolutely. But I didn't think I was going to get another shot at him if I let him grab the lead right there.”