Despite clearly being false, the narrative that Chase Elliott must win to qualify for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs continues to spread.
Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott has had one of the crazier seasons the NASCAR Cup Series has seen from a championship contender in recent history, missing six races with a fractured left tibia he suffered in a snowboarding accident and missing another race after becoming just the second driver in the last eight seasons to be suspended for an on-track incident.
Through 17 races on the 26-race regular season schedule, Elliott finds himself in 25th place in the point standings, a far cry from where he was last year when he led the series in total points scored from March all the way through the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Because he has missed so much time and finds himself nine spots below the playoff cut line, there is this narrative circulating that the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet is in a must-win position.
That narrative simply could not be further from the truth.
Elliott now trails the playoff cut line by just 64 points after a fourth place finish in Sunday night’s Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway.
We’re talking about 64 points over the span of two months, not 64 points over the span of two races — or, in the case of a true “must-win” situation, one week.
Chase Elliott has nine NASCAR Cup Series races to overcome that deficit.
He has just lopped off more than one-third of a 98-point deficit, 34 points to be exact, in the last two races alone. The suggestion that a 64-point deficit is impossible to overcome in nine weeks is simply untrue.
At Sonoma Raceway, he took a 14-point chunk out of that margin, despite scoring zero stage points, and at Nashville Superspeedway, he took a further 20 points out of it thanks to a second straight top five finish.
All things considered, Elliott has had a solid season when he has actually been behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet, recording four top five finishes and four other top 12 finishes in his 10 starts. His only two finishes outside of the top 12 are his two DNFs, one of which being the one that triggered his suspension.
While there are some who think his head isn’t totally in it this year, consistency-wise, he has had a similar season to last year, minus the wins. In addition to total points, he led the series in average finish (12.5) in the first year of the Next Gen car a year ago. His average finish in this year is 12.6.
This idea that the only way he can make the playoffs is by winning is simply crazy. What is even crazier is the fact that it continues to be peddled.
It was said at Sonoma Raceway that Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson were approaching the final 11 races of the regular season with a must-win attitude. But at this point, there is simply no way that they aren’t at least aware of the points path that exists.
Of course, they’d prefer to win. That goes without saying. And there is still a chance that the cut line moves up. Just look at last year, when it ended up between the third and fourth place drivers, because so many drivers won races and because so many of those drivers would not have been in the playoffs without their victories.
There have already been 11 winners this season, though because the lowest of them is higher than 16th place in the point standings, the cut line to qualify for the 16-driver postseason remains between the 16th and 17th place drivers.
Other than the obvious fact that he isn’t one of the 11 winners so far this season, the only reason why this winner total hurts Elliott is the fact that it leaves just five provisional playoff spots open. More new winners equals fewer open spots.
So there are just five drivers who remain above the cut line on points after the season’s 17th race, and Elliott sits 14th among winless drivers in that group.
The good news? His points per race average would put him second in that group, trailing only Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick.
Winning is still the easiest way for him to get into the playoffs, but to say at this point in the year, not even two-thirds of the way into the regular season, that he absolutely needs to win to qualify is simply wrong.
DraftKings Sportsbook, which is now offering fans an instant $150 for signing up and placing a single $5 bet, lists Elliott as the fifth favorite to win the championship at +900, even with him not in a provisional playoff spot.
Might he end up in a must-win situation? Sure. But he’s not in one yet. Not even remotely close.
If he keeps doing what he is doing, he is set to have a legitimate chance to get into the playoffs on points, provided there isn’t an influx of new winners — specifically new winners below the current cut line. All 11 winners so far this season sit in the top 14 in the point standings, which keeps things looking rather straightforward at this stage in the game.
Elliott is set to aim for his first win of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season this Sunday, July 2 in the Grant Park 220, the inaugural race at the new Chicago Street Course — and the first ever NASCAR Cup Series race on a street circuit.
Elliott is the winningest active driver on courses with both left and right turns. The race is set to air live on NBC beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET, so begin a free trial of FuboTV now and don’t miss it!