July 16 (UPI) -- Cup Series driver Chase Elliott won the All-Star Race in front of 20,000 NASCAR fans, the most allowed to attend a live professional sporting event in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.
Elliott's No. 9 Chevrolet triggered a roar from fans in the grandstands as it crossed the finish line ahead of the field Wednesday at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Conn. Elliott earned a $1 million prize for the victory.
"Tonight felt like an event again, and I felt like we've been missing that piece for a couple months," Elliott told reporters. "It felt good to have NASCAR back. NASCAR is about the fans. ... I felt like the vibe was back."
NASCAR suspended its Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Truck Series seasons in mid-March due to the pandemic. Drivers returned to the track -- without fans in attendance -- May 17 for the Real Heroes 400. NASCAR has welcomed fans back to races in a progressive fashion prior to allowing the 20,000 supporters at Bristol.
About 1,000 service members and their family members were allowed to attend a June 14 race in Homestead, Fla. A week later, 5,000 fans were allowed to attend the Geico 500 in Talladega, Ala. The next three races were held without fans before Wednesday's crowd watched Elliott take the checkered flag.
Elliott claimed the second and third stages of the All-Star Race. He chose the outside lane to restart the final 15 laps. He was never challenged by Busch down the stretch.
Tickets were on sale through Tuesday for the event, which normally includes 140,000 fans but was limited due to pandemic precautions. Fans were socially distanced in the grandstands and were required to wear masks when they entered the track. They were allowed to remove the masks while seated. The fans were dismissed row by row.
Matt DiBenedetto won the All-Star Open event just before the All-Star Race. Aric Almirola won the first stage of that event. William Byron won the second stage. The trio qualified for the All-Star Race due to the performances. Clint Boyer also qualified for the race's 20-car field after he won a fan vote.
Almirola finished ninth, Byron finished 12th and DiBenedetto finished 13th in the All-Star Race.
Elliott joined his father, former Cup Series star Bill Elliott, as an All-Star Race winner. The Elliotts joined Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the only other father-son duos to claim All-Star Race victories. Chase led 60 laps at Bristol. Ryan Blaney led a race-high 72 laps.
Elliott now ranks fourth in the Cup Series standings, behind Harvick, Keselowski and Blaney. Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Almirola, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch also rank inside the Top-10 in the Cup Series.
The Cup Series season continues with the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at 3 p.m. EDT Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.