1. Look out, because Chase Elliott isn’t having any fun unless he wins …
If you’ve followed New Hampshire NASCAR Cup Series winner Christopher Bell since his days in the Xfinity Series, you likely remember him as one of the more miserable second-place finishers around on days he couldn’t bring home the checkered flag. Other drivers interviewed after top-five results might talk about how their team battled to improve or how it was a good points day, but Bell? He always seemed despondent as the runner-up.
It’s with no small amount of irony, then, that Bell was the one who brought that same glum outlook from Chase Elliott. After the race, he was so down about letting a win slip away — blaming himself, not his team — that you would have thought he came home 32nd instead of second. Not even the interviewer reminding him that NHMS marked his fourth top-two finish in a row could cheer him up. Instead, he finished by saying he needed to work on “everything.”
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 18, 2022
Lest Elliott’s legion of fans interpret this as a diss, it’s quite the opposite. He’s not just the hottest driver in the NASCAR Cup Series right now, but he’s unwilling to stand pat and rest on that fact. That shows he’s a serious threat to win his second championship, because he’s not going to accept defeat — even a definition of one that works out to “anything but first place.”
2. … But Elliott getting happy might make all race fans gloomy
Bell’s victory brought us one step closer to what this column has previously dubbed Winpocalypse: a situation where there are 17 or more regular season winners and a victory doesn’t guarantee a spot in the playoff field. We’re tantalizingly close now, with 14 different winners and six more races to find three additional ones.
Amazingly, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. have found a way to do everything but win, so having them break through would be helpful. Yet the real issue now is whether someone already inside the playoffs will get hot enough to rip off several more wins, entering the postseason by dashing fans’ dreams (well, some fans, anyway) while ensuring themselves a healthy leg up on their title run.
Elliott is the most likely person to play party pooper, and not just because he’s on fire at the moment. The tracks still to go on the regular season slate include Watkins Glen, where he’s won twice, as well as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, where he’ll enter as one of the favorites.
Add in Daytona, which is a bit of a toss-up but where Elliott is generally in the hunt if he doesn’t get caught in a wreck, and there’s a definite possibility he could stay on a tear. If Elliott wins, say, two more races before Darlington, that will probably be enough to stave off Winpocalypse. And that would be a shame.
3. No drivers deserve to make the playoffs on points
While we’ve defined the most fun scenario as 17+ winners, the reality is that even 16 winners would be a real shakeup for the status quo in NASCAR’s playoff era. Why? Because the postseason would include nothing but race winners, and no one would make it in on points unless they’re the championship leader (bumping a potential winner out).
That thought is what is likely making the Blaney and Truex camps lose sleep right now, and it’s understandable because both drivers have had solid, consistent seasons.
But so what?
The NASCAR Playoffs have done a lousy job determining who has really been the best driver throughout a Cup Series season, because all you need to do is get hot late (and the later the better, since winning the finale is usually required to secure the championship). It has, however, rather nicely rewarded teams for winning races, which is great since that’s the point of the entire exercise in the first place.
You’ll probably read and hear people talk about how the rules should be changed to ensure a driver with a lot of points deserves to make the field, but that’s silly. It’s almost guaranteed that if Blaney and/or Truex don’t make it, they won’t be whining about how they got hosed, but instead say “well, we should have figured out a way to close out a race.”
And it’s hard to argue with that.
4. What does it mean if Kevin Harvick misses the playoffs?
One of the sadder realities of star Cup Series drivers who are past their prime is that it’s almost impossible to know when they’re going to start sliding until it’s happening, and then it’s so surreal that it’s hard to believe even as it’s playing out on a weekly basis. Jimmie Johnson is the perfect recent case study, as he won the 2016 championship, looked for the first half of 2017 like nothing was wrong or different, and then just … stopped winning.
That’s relevant because it looks like it could be happening to Kevin Harvick as we speak, but it’s impossible to know for sure until he either wins again or retires. Even though Harvick’s fall-off hasn’t been quite the same as Johnson’s, in some ways, it’s been even more severe. The No. 4 car visited victory lane nine times in 2020, and it hasn’t been back since.
That might be OK if Harvick was consistently running up front, but he’s somewhat incredibly led just 13 laps this season. For reference, there are 13 drivers who have led at least 200, and even Brad Keselowski, whose debut season for the team he now co-owns has been a nightmare, found a way to the front for 73 laps.
This slump isn’t meant to insinuate that the fault lies with Harvick alone, as all of Stewart-Haas Racing has seemed lost for chunks of the 2022 campaign. And he’s certainly earned the right to keep at this Cup thing as long as he wants.
The question now is whether he’d want to if not competing for wins or championships. Missing the playoffs, which seems almost certain now unless Harvick wins a race in the next six weeks, would be a big sign that he certainly isn’t.
5. Wait, Kyle Busch isn’t really suggesting he’d race anywhere but Joe Gibbs Racing, right?
One of the sillier Silly Season stories in recent memory played out this week when Kyle Busch mentioned that since he doesn’t have his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing or sponsorship situations resolved, he had been talking to other teams about a 2023 ride. Yet Busch maintained that he felt “like I still have a seat,” which is probably as close to an exuberant declaration that he’d like to stay as he’s likely to give.
So the big question now is this: Would JGR really let Busch walk?
If it does, it would be the biggest sign yet that sponsorship, or lack thereof, has changed driver decisions in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Even though 2022 has hardly been his best season, Busch has managed a win and will definitely be in the playoffs, if not a serious title contender.
As far as his desirability to sponsors goes, he’s not even the biggest black hat in the sport any more — not when Ross Chastain and Noah Gragson are out there making people mad. It’s not easy to replace a dependable, near-every race sponsor like Mars/M&M’s, but surely, someone out there would ride with Rowdy.
For his part, any seat that opens up for next season is almost certainly going to be a step down from JGR, and having worse equipment would just mean a surly Busch who wouldn’t be fulfilled riding around. Add it all up and the Busch-JGR pairing is a classic example of athlete and team that would both be better off if they found a way to stay together.
The guess here is that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
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