NASCAR: Sonoma race exposes Chase Elliott misconception

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Sonoma, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Sonoma, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Chase Elliott knows he probably needs to win to get into the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. But it’s just that — probably.

Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott finished Sunday afternoon’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma Raceway in fifth place behind the wheel of his No. 9 Chevrolet after being forced to sit out the previous race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

NASCAR suspended Elliott for one race after he was deemed to have intentionally wrecked Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin as an act of retaliation at Charlotte Motor Speedway the week prior.

Elliott missed the season’s first road course race at Circuit of the Americas back in late March as a result of the fact that he had suffered a fractured left tibia in a Colorado snowboarding accident, so Sunday’s start was his first in a road course race since last year.

He missed six races during that early season absence, so through the season’s first 16 races, he has missed a total of seven events.

With Elliott sitting in 27th place in the point standings, there is no doubt that winning a race is the easiest way for him to get into the playoffs. With 11 drivers separating Elliott from the playoff cut line, both Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson are aiming for a win, rather than aiming to score as many points as possible and hoping to end up in one of the 16 playoff spots.

We saw this with their strategy calls on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. Elliott did not score any stage points but ended up leading laps thanks to his tire strategy before settling for fifth place.

However, what the Sonoma Raceway race also showed is that Chase Elliott is still more than capable of qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs on points.

Chase Elliott is not yet in a must-win situation. Not even close.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. won the race, meaning that there have still been just 10 different winners this season. That keeps six provisional playoff spots open with 10 regular season races remaining on the calendar.

As a result, the playoff cut line still sits between the 16th and 17th place drivers in the standings heading into the lone off weekend of the season, which is significant. Compare that to last season, when it ended up between the third and fourth place drivers, and Truex failed to qualify for the playoffs despite finishing the regular season in fourth in the standings.

Whether or not it remains there remains to be seen, but no driver currently lower than 14th place in the standings has won this year, and only two of the 10 winners are outside of the top 10 in points.

Entering Sunday’s 110-lap race around the 12-turn, 1.99-mile (3.203-kilometer) Sonoma, California road course, Elliott was 98 points below the cut line. Despite the fact that he scored zero stage points, he trimmed that gap to 84 points.

It may not seem like much, but he eliminated one-seventh of that deficit in only the 16th of 26 races on the regular season schedule. So an 84-point deficit is not insurmountable over the course of 10 races, even though there are quite a few drivers he needs to pass.

It’s not like we have two weeks to go and we’re suggesting that “Elliott can mathematically make up 42 points per race and still get in” just for the sake of talking about a longshot possibility relating to NASCAR’s most popular driver.

We’re talking about 10 races over the course of two and a half months. It is much more than a “longshot”.

Elliott has three top five finishes in his nine starts this year, including finishes of second and third place, and he led all drivers in total points in one of the other six. Aside from his crash with Hamlin, his only other non-top 12 finish came in the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, when he was caught up in another driver’s mess.

There seems to be this idea that Elliott’s head isn’t completely in it this year. While that may or may not be true, Elliott himself has admitted that the “stop and go” element of the season has been a challenge, and he is just looking forward to getting into a rhythm.

That starts with not missing any more races — and not needing any more playoff waivers.

We know what he is capable of when he gets into a rhythm. In year number one of the Next Gen car last season, he led the series in wins, total points, laps led, and average finish. A win would certainly be nice for him in 2023, but even without one, he is capable of getting into a rhythm and making up that 84-point deficit before the regular season ends.

Next. All-time NASCAR Cup Series wins list. dark

The 17th race on the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series schedule is the Ally 400, which is scheduled to take place on Sunday, June 25. The race is set to be broadcast live on NBC from Nashville Superspeedway, where Elliott won last year, beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET. Begin a free trial of FuboTV and do not miss it!