Only four races remain before the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin. Time is running out for championship hopefuls to secure wins and score additional playoff points. Perhaps even more importantly, anyone aiming to win the championship needs to start performing at their best right now. Often in the postseason era, the driver who ends the year as the champion is the one who gets hot at the end of the season.
If that trend holds up in 2023, Ross Chastain and the No. 1 team might be in trouble. Chastain was one of the fastest drivers early in the season and led the points standings for several weeks. But ever since the Coca-Cola 600, the No. 1 team has struggled to find week-to-week consistency. Chastain has fallen to seventh in points as a result, and he is running out of opportunities to get back into the regular season title fight.
The strange part is that, during this lackluster stretch of races, Chastain did check one important box that he could not early in the season. He scored his only win so far of 2023. At Nashville Superspeedway last month, Chastain had an outstanding run, starting from the pole and leading a race-high 99 of 300 laps. He took the lead for the final time with 34 to go, holding a slim advantage over Martin Truex Jr. all the way to the checkered flag. It was an important victory for Chastain, who had not won a race in more than a year. It was also a great win for crew chief Phil Surgen and the No. 1 team, who did the best job of keeping up with the track conditions in Nashville’s day-to-night race.
Nearly every other race this summer has been a disappointment for Chastain. His only other top 10 since Memorial Day is a 10th-place run at Sonoma Raceway. That’s pretty concerning for a team that has championship aspirations, especially since the Cup Series has visited many different types of tracks in the last two months.
Although Chastain won at Nashville, a high-speed intermediate, he was a non-factor in the Coca-Cola 600, a race that he dominated last year until getting collected in a late crash. He finished outside the top 20 at flat ovals like World Wide Technology Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, two venues where he got top 10s in 2022.
Other tracks where Chastain might have been competitive have not produced good results. The Chicago street course was an absolute slog for Chastain. He qualified 34th, ran in the back most of the day and had to battle hard just to get to 22nd. Atlanta Motor Speedway, another track where Chastain was fast last year, ended with a crash and a 35th-place DNF. Although he got caught up in someone else’s accident, it was still a costly race for Chastain points-wise.
Even Richmond Raceway, where Chastain finished third earlier this year, brought no relief. The No. 1 was mired back in traffic all afternoon, and the only cautions until the tail end of the race were for the ends of the first two stages. That left Surgen and the crew with few opportunities to make adjustments and few chances for Chastain to catch up on track. The best that can be said about Chastain’s month of July was that he avoided Denny Hamlin’s wrath at Pocono Raceway this year and ended that race in 13th. Still, the No. 1 team was probably hoping for better.
In fact, the whole Trackhouse Racing team has had a lackluster summer outside of Shane van Gisbergen’s shocking Chicago victory. Daniel Suarez also started the season off well, but he began slumping earlier and more severely than Chastain. Back in March, Suarez left Las Vegas Motor Speedway third in points. After the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race, he had plunged all the way to 19th. Suarez rebounded slightly after that and has been at the center of the points battle to reach the playoffs for several weeks. However, a crash at Pocono and another bad day at Richmond have realistically ended the points option for Suarez. Unless he wins one of the next four races, Trackhouse will probably have just one car in the postseason this year.
As for Chastain, going into the playoffs without momentum will not destroy his title hopes, but it will put the championship further away from his grasp. The No. 1 team has banked 10 playoff points so far. If Chastain finishes the regular season in seventh, without another win or stage victory, that would give him 14 total playoff points, which would put him in a tie for sixth if the postseason began today. That’s not too far off from last year when Chastain began the postseason with 20 playoff points and made it to the championship race.
The problem is that Chastain’s playoff point total could be so much higher. While the No. 1 team has cooled off, Truex, Hamlin and William Byron have made the battle for the regular season championship a three-horse race. Whoever comes out on top will earn 15 playoff points in addition to what they already have. Truex currently has 18 playoff points, Hamlin has 14, and Byron has 22. The winner of the regular season is going to get a big leg up on the competition.
After the last two months, Chastain is 118 points out of the lead. The playoff point bonus for winning the regular season title is probably beyond his reach. He could still make the championship race without those points, but it is more likely that a lack of points in a tight race could eliminate him from title contention. After last year’s “Hail Melon” at Martinsville Speedway, Chastain should know better than anyone what a big difference a few points can make. Unless he can turn things around in the next four weeks, the playoff points that Chastain has lost during his summer slump may ultimately keep him from winning the 2023 championship.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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