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Chase Elliott has won the Cup Series Most Popular Driver Award each year since 2018. In that same time, the Georgia native has also won 14 races and the 2020 championship.

This season the 26-year-old has been one of the most consistent performers, running up front most of the time, which included earning his first win of the season last month at Dover. On Sunday at Nashville, the Hendrick Motorsports driver collected his second win of 2022 and his 15th career victory. But it’s what happened at the end of the race that had some fans calling out NASCAR for playing favorites with the sport’s most popular driver. 

Chase Elliott in lead when late caution comes out

Chase Elliott races with Kyle Busch
Chase Elliott races with Kyle Busch during the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 on June 26, 2022 at Nashville SuperSpeedway. | Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Chase Elliott and the HMS cars just weren’t that good early in the race at Nashville Superspeedway. However, that all changed after a lengthy rain delay and both the air and track temperatures dramatically cooled. The No. 9 car came to life and moved up toward the front.

With 38 laps to go, Elliott took the lead for the second time in the race. His closest competitors were the Toyotas, including multiple Joe Gibbs Racing cars, and Kurt Busch. 

Elliott’s biggest challenge came late when the No. 77 of Josh Bilicki began billowing smoke for engine issues with seven laps remaining and NASCAR appropriately put out a caution because of a possible fluid leak. Safety is a top priority for NASCAR, and any fluid leaking on the track could pose potential dangers to the drivers. 

On the subsequent restart with four laps to go, Elliott got a good push from his friend Ryan Blaney and surged out to the lead in front of Kurt Busch. 

Elliott in lead when Brad Keselowski suffers heavy damage but NASCAR doesn’t put out caution

While Elliott took the lead over Busch on the restart, it’s what happened behind them that got the attention of the fans and NBC broadcasters up in the booth. Cole Custer got loose low and slid up the track, taking Brad Keselowski into the outside wall with him. 

Both cars appeared damaged, but the No. 6 car got the worst of it. Keselowski struggled to control his car, which weaved back and forth on the verge of spinning out. It didn’t spin, but it limped around the track. 

“They stay green!” NBC’s Rick Allen said, surprised that NASCAR hadn’t put out a caution. The network then showed a split screen with Busch pursuing Elliott in one box and the wounded RFK car struggling to make its way around the track in the other. 

On the final lap, cameras showed Elliott making one last trip around the circuit, including passing Keselowski barely inching along on the infield grass.

The RFK car was catastrophically damaged and wasn’t making it back around to pit road. NASCAR officials knew that. But instead of throwing a caution because of a safety issue with a car stuck on the track as is the customary practice, officials turned their heads and looked the other way, allowing Elliott to cruise to victory.

NASCAR and its record of putting out cautions hasn’t been good lately

NASCAR officials turning their heads the other way isn’t anything new. You have to look no further than last month at Texas during the All-Star Race. That’s when, ironically enough, the tower threw out a caution with Ryan Blaney just yards from the finish line. 

Based on All-Star Race-specific rules, the race couldn’t end under caution. Unfortunately, the No. 12 team didn’t learn of the caution until after the driver had crossed the finish line and already started his postrace celebration and lowered his window net. Once he was made aware of the situation, he frantically tried to get it back into place for the next several minutes. 

He did to NASCAR’s satisfaction, but everyone watching, including the drivers, knew the net wasn’t properly, and most importantly, safely secured. However, NASCAR officials turned the other way and allowed it to stay in place. Blaney held off Denny Hamlin in overtime for the victory. 

Quite honestly, that’s the only explanation why NASCAR didn’t throw a caution for Keselowski at Nashville. Combining last month’s late caution fiasco at Texas with the most popular driver leading the race at Nashville, NASCAR officials didn’t want another nightmare on their hands and acted like Keselowski’s limping car didn’t exist.

There’s no doubt a lot of fans were happy Chase Elliott won the race. He was unquestionably one of the best cars late. But if NASCAR is serious about safety being a top priority, it must be more consistent when it comes to putting out cautions. 

Last month at Texas, the tower was trigger-happy in an exhibition race. Last night, officials took the opposite approach and allowed the most popular driver to win while jeopardizing the safety of another driver. There’s a middle ground somewhere in there and NASCAR needs to find it. 

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