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Up to Speed: Chase Elliott Still Has a Points Path to the Playoffs

Chase Elliott’s uphill climb to the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs became even more difficult in the last few weeks.

Missing six races early in the season while recovering from a snowboarding accident put Elliott in a serious points hole. Then he got into an on-track altercation with Denny Hamlin during the Coca-Cola 600, turning Hamlin’s No. 11 into the outside wall. NASCAR suspended Elliott one race for allegedly intentionally crashing Hamlin, leading to another race weekend where Elliott was sitting at home, unable to collect points.

Last weekend’s event at Sonoma Raceway was much better for the No. 9 team. Elliott did not get the victory he sought, but he did score a top-five finish. Considering that all the Hendrick Motorsports drivers lacked the pace of the Toyota teams at Sonoma, Elliott’s fifth was about as good as the No. 9 team was going to get.

With 10 races to go in the regular season, Elliott finds himself 27th in points, 84 points below the cut line. That might seem like an insurmountable deficit, and FOX’s analysts were quick to declare that Elliott is in a must-win situation to reach the postseason.

However, Elliott can still reach the playoffs on points. Daunting though it may seem, Elliott’s past level of performance, and the strength that his team has shown this year, suggest that a trip to the 2023 postseason may not require a stop in victory lane.

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Earlier this season, right after Elliott returned from his snowboarding accident, he sat 34th in overall points, 134 behind the last playoff spot. Over the next five races, he earned a total of 163 points. Leaving Darlington Raceway, Elliott had advanced to 28th in points and cut the gap between himself and playoff eligibility to 63. This means Elliott made up a total of 71 points relative to the postseason cut line in five races, or an average of 14.2 points per race.

After earning only three points at Charlotte Motor Speedway and sitting out the next event at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, the gap then increased to 98 points. Finally, thanks to a good finish at Sonoma, Elliott gained 14 more points relative to postseason cut line.

To qualify for the playoffs on points, Elliott would need to gain an average of 8.4 points relative to the cut line per race for the rest of the regular season. Based on his earlier body of work in 2023, that’s doable.

If you factor in the last three weeks, including Elliott’s crash at Charlotte and his absence at Gateway, he has still made up 50 points on the cut line compared to where he was two months ago.

Elliott won’t completely avoid bad finishes over the next 10 races, but he won’t be foolish enough to pull another ill-advised stunt like he did and Charlotte and risk further punishment from NASCAR. Chances are low that he’ll go another two weeks with only three points accumulated.

In addition, the rest of the regular season schedule lines up well for the No. 9 team. During the same stretch of 10 races in 2022, Elliott scored three wins, seven top fives and finished worse than 16th only once. His wins came at Nashville Superspeedway, Pocono Raceway and Watkins Glen International, all tracks the Cup Series will visit this year before the playoffs begin.

The only difference between this year’s schedule and last year’s is that the Chicago street course replaces Road America the first weekend of July. That should not matter too much for Elliott, though. Seven of his 18 career wins have come on road courses, and he will be one of the favorites at the new street circuit.

Elliott’s biggest challenge in reaching the postseason is not even the number of points he must make up — it’s the other drivers who are vying for the last available playoff spots, including his teammate Alex Bowman. Bowman missed three races earlier this season recovering from a back injury. NASCAR also dealt Bowman’s No. 48 team a 60-point penalty earlier this season for an illegal greenhouse modification. These setbacks have knocked Bowman down to the playoff bubble.

Yet Bowman has run well when he has been healthy and even led the points standings earlier this season. Plus, with Hendrick’s’ other drivers already locked into the playoffs, the team has just as much incentive to get Bowman to victory lane as it does Elliott. A win by Bowman would move the playoff bubble to someone higher in points, giving Elliott an even taller mountain to climb.

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Additional new winners would make Elliott’s task exceptionally difficult. For instance, if Bowman and Bubba Wallace were to win races before Elliott, the playoff bubble would likely shift to RFK Racing drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher. Keselowski is currently 177 points ahead of Elliott, with Buescher 183 in front. The No. 9 team would need to earn nearly 20 points per race to catch the RFK duo, and that’s unlikely without a win anyway. Elliott’s postseason hopes will depend on repeat winners to keep the playoff bubble within striking distance.

Making the playoffs without a win will be a tough task for Elliott, but he is not in a must-win situation. The must-win phrase is being thrown around far too loosely for a team of the No. 9’s capability. Elliott’s title hopes do not rely on a Hail Mary win, and the team should not approach the rest of the season as if that is the case.

That said, there is no more room for error. Elliott’s escapades at Charlotte and the resulting suspension did not do his team any favors. If Elliott winds up missing the playoffs by 25 points or fewer, the suspension will be a major reason why.

It is up to Elliott if his 2023 season will be defined by seizing the opportunity before him or wasting it with a right hook to the No. 11 car.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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DoninAjax

“However, Elliott can still reach the playoffs on points”

Imagine that! A win isn’t necessary. Don’t tell the suits in Daytona. Their heads will explode.

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