NASCAR: Surprising championship favorite after Chase Elliott injury

Kyle Busch, Richard Childress Racing, Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, Richard Childress Racing, Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

Chase Elliott is still a co-favorite to win the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship, despite being out for an indefinite amount of time.

NASCAR fans were shocked to hear the news on Friday night that 2020 Cup Series champion Chase Elliott had suffered a serious leg injury while snowboarding in Colorado ahead of the race weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, causing him to undergo a three-hour surgery later that evening.

Elliott, who was immediately ruled out of Sunday afternoon’s Pennzoil 400 by Hendrick Motorsports, was later confirmed to have broken his left tibia. The team announced that he will be out for “several weeks” and did not indicate any sort of a timetable on a potential return.

There is a sense of optimism, however, as team have already applied for a playoff waiver. Waivers are typically granted by NASCAR when a full-time driver unexpectedly misses a race or races due to being medically unable to compete.

If approved, Elliott would still be able to qualify for the playoffs on points or by winning a race (and being high enough in the standings if there are more than 16 winners).

But one thing surprisingly hasn’t changed: Chase Elliott’s NASCAR Cup Series championship odds.

Elliott, the preseason favorite, is still listed as a co-favorite to win this year’s championship, along with Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch.

They are both listed at +650 (bet $100 to win $650) at FanDuel Sportsbook after finishing 1-2 at Auto Club Speedway last Sunday, with Busch earning his first win with his new team.

The fact that Elliott’s odds haven’t changed indicates the belief that he will indeed be granted a playoff waiver, but even that depends on how many races he misses. If, for example, he returns only for the regular season finale in late August, it’s highly unlikely he’ll get one. A decision isn’t expected until a return timetable is established.

However, even with a playoff waiver, Elliott’s championship chances are inherently lower with him missing multiple races.

All a playoff waiver does is keep a driver eligible for the playoffs despite missing time. That driver still needs to qualify, and drivers don’t score any points during absences.

While points don’t necessarily matter in terms of playoff eligibility (especially after a recent rule change) if a driver wins, missing races means that there are fewer opportunities to win, and thus fewer opportunities to score playoff points, which are crucial for drivers to advance through the four-round, 10-race postseason.

Fewer points also means fewer playoff points, since playoff drivers who finish the regular season in the top 10 in the point standings all enter the playoffs with additional extra playoff points.

So to imply that Elliott has just as good of a chance to win the 2023 championship now as he did a few days ago is, for lack of a better word, bizarre.

Interestingly enough, there is a relatively recent example to consider of a driver going on a deep playoff run after missing an extended period of time early in the season.

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Busch missed the first 11 races of the 2015 season with a broken right leg and broken left foot. He was granted a playoff waiver, qualified for the postseason with multiple victories in the final 15 regular season races, and went on to win his first championship, despite competing in only 25 of the 36 races on the schedule.