It is a situation that seemed unfathomable at the beginning of the season. Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the most successful team in the NASCAR Cup Series garage, has not one but two drivers below the NASCAR Cup Series playoff cut line in Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.
With only six regular season races remaining, the Nos. 9 and 48 teams have a heightened sense of urgency to begin their charge towards the playoffs.
Will Elliott, Bowman or both make the playoffs? No — neither Elliott nor Bowman will do enough to get above the cut line by the time the checkered flag waves on the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway on Aug. 26.
It has truly been a tale of two seasons for Bowman and the No. 48 team. The Tucson, Ariz., native scored six top 10s in the first seven races of the season, and Bowman left the 10th race of the season at Talladega Superspeedway tied for ninth in points, sitting 30 points above the playoff cutline.
Then, on April 25, Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car race at 34 Raceway and had to miss three points-paying races.
Ever since his return for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Bowman has not been the same. In the 10 races prior to the injury, Bowman tallied six top 10s with an average finish of 10.3. In the seven races since his return, Bowman has yet to score a top-10 finish and has an average finish of 21st.
It is a scenario reminiscent of Denny Hamlin in 2013 when he hurt his back in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway. Hamlin sat out four races due to the injury, finished 23rd in points and missed the playoffs for the only time in his Cup career.
Barring an abrupt return to form, Bowman is headed for a similar fate in 2023. At 42 points below the cut line, pointing his way in seems like a tall task for Bowman. In the final six regular season races of 2022, Bowman posted an average finish of 16.67 while current 16th-place driver Michael McDowell averaged a finish of 18.17. It is a slight advantage in Bowman’s favor, but not enough to close the points gap in front of him.
Is a win feasible? Out of the six remaining regular season tracks, Bowman has a victory each at Pocono Raceway and Richmond Raceway but no wins at Michigan International Speedway, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Watkins Glen International or Daytona. Furthermore, Bowman is in the midst of a 45-race winless streak going back to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in early 2022.
Either way you slice it, a playoff berth does not appear to be in the cards for Bowman this season.
Similar to his teammate, Elliott suffered a setback due to injury, missing six races after breaking his leg in a snowboarding accident. Unlike Bowman, Elliott also got suspended for one more race after intentionally hooking Hamlin in the right rear during the Coca-Cola 600.
This leaves Elliott in an unfamiliar position on the outside looking in of the playoff picture, 60 points below the cutline. At this rate, Elliott’s odds of pointing his way in are astronomical, needing to not only gain 10 points on the cut line per race but also leapfrog seven drivers in front of him just to get to 16th. This leaves a race win as Elliott’s best chance to punch his playoff ticket.
Now, I know what you are thinking: Oh, Elliott could easily win at Pocono this week. After all, he is the defending race winner. But remember, Elliott actually crossed the line third that day and was declared the winner after Hamlin and Kyle Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas were both disqualified in post-race inspection. Elliott’s five Pocono finishes prior to last year’s win are 27th, 12th, fourth, 25th and 38th.
But Elliott is the king of the road courses, right? Well, not as of late. Elliott’s last road course win came over two years ago at Road America. In Elliott’s 11 road course starts since then, he does have seven top-five finishes, so he will likely be in contention. But with the stacked entry list at Indianapolis and the unpredictability of Watkins Glen, a road course win is no sure thing.
As for the three other regular season tracks, Elliott is winless in the Cup Series at Richmond, Michigan and Daytona. Of those three, Michigan is likely his best chance at a win, with a career average finish of eighth; however, Elliott has not finished in the top five in the Irish Hills since 2017.
Many times, we have seen long-term injuries derail a driver’s season. Busch in 2015 is the exception, not the rule. Elliott does not appear to be the same driver right now as he was in previous playoff runs.
As of now, 11 drivers have locked up their spots in the Cup playoffs with a win. Of the victory-less drivers, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher all have comfortable cushions on the cut line of 137, 108 and 97 points, respectively. That realistically leaves two playoff spots up for grabs, and those spots will go to Bubba Wallace and AJ Allmendinger.
Wallace is part of a Toyota camp that has picked up steam as the season has progressed. Wallace had an average finish of 12.3 across the final six regular season races of 2022, a stretch that features the exact same tracks this year.
As for Allmendinger, he has Cup wins at Watkins Glen and the Indianapolis road course on his resume. Even if Allmendinger does not take the checkered flag at either of those tracks, he should bring home a strong finish. At 20 points below the cut line, Allmendinger will have a better chance of pointing his way into the playoffs than Bowman or Elliott.
When it comes to the NASCAR Cup Series in the playoff era, the only predictable aspect is its unpredictability. It is possible that Bowman and Elliott recapture their form and win their way into the playoffs and I wind up eating crow a month or two from now.
However, there is no debate that Bowman and Elliott both have tall mountains to climb to be a part of the playoff field in 2023.
About the author
Andrew Stoddard joined Frontstretch in May of 2022 as an iRacing contributor. He is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Richmond, and VCU. He has a new day job as an athletic communications specialist at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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