NASCAR: What a playoff waiver does (and doesn’t) do

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR - Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR - Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports /

NASCAR has granted Chase Elliott a playoff waiver for the 2023 Cup Series season, but there are a few things to clarify before he makes his return.

After missing the last six NASCAR Cup Series races with a broken left tibia he suffered in a Colorado snowboarding accident last month, Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott is set to return to the No. 9 Chevrolet in this Sunday afternoon’s NOCO 400 at Martinsville Speedway.

NASCAR also confirmed that Elliott has been granted a playoff waiver, keeping him eligible for the playoffs — and thus in the running for the 2023 championship — despite missing six races and therefore having no way to run all 26 regular season races.

Naturally, there is a contingent of fans who claim that this decision is favoritism toward NASCAR’s five-time Most Popular Driver Award winner. But you’d expect nothing less from the totally level-headed, calculated world that is social media.

The reality of it is that Elliott not being granted a playoff waiver would have been the abnormality, given their past decisions on playoff waivers. Not every waiver has been issued for a medical reason, and not every medical waiver has been issued for a NASCAR-related injury. Six races is also far from being the longest absence for a driver who has been given one.

But what does a NASCAR Cup Series playoff waiver actually do — and what does it not do?

A playoff waiver does not lock a driver into the playoffs. Many drivers have been given waivers and not qualified for the playoffs, including former champions Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson. Others such as Austin Dillon, Corey LaJoie, and Chris Buescher also fall into this category.

So no, Elliott is not locked into the playoffs — in fact, far from it.

Literally all a waiver does is prevent a driver from being automatically ineligible for the postseason due to missing races. With a waiver, running fewer than 26 regular season races doesn’t equal instant elimination.

That’s it. That’s all it does. Elliott still has to qualify, either by winning a regular season race or by finishing high enough in points (or by doing both, if the regular season ends up having more than 16 winners, a very realistic possibility considering the fact that there have already been seven in eight races so far this year).

By missing six races, Elliott inherently has a tougher path to qualify for the playoffs, even with a waiver. That marks six fewer opportunities to win, and six fewer opportunities to build up his point total. Both could prove crucial in the long haul.

With 18 races remaining in the regular season, Elliott sits in 34th place in the point standings, last among drivers classified as full-time drivers. Last year’s regular season champion sits 232 points out of the lead, and he sits 134 points below the playoff cut line.

It won’t be easy. Of course, there is no longer a requirement for a race winner to be in the top 30 in the standings to qualify for the postseason, making it a little bit easier. But if Elliott does manage to win, that likely won’t matter, since he is still only 42 points out of the top 30 as it stands right now, despite missing six straight events.

Elliott was taken out in a wreck in the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, but he followed that up with a second place finish at Auto Club Speedway, his best ever finish in the final race at the track. In those two races, he racked up 49 points.

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Tune in to Fox Sports 1 at 3:00 p.m. ET this Sunday, April 16 for the live broadcast of the NOCO 400 from Martinsville Speedway to watch Chase Elliott’s long-awaited return to NASCAR Cup Series action. If you haven’t begun a free trial of FuboTV, do it now!