NASCAR: The non-winner who came closer than Chase Elliott

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

While Chase Elliott generated a lot of the attention, there was a non-winner who finished higher than he did in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale.

Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott was one of 17 drivers who entered the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale with a chance to secure the 16th and final playoff spot.

Of those 17 drivers, 14, including Elliott, knew they needed to win the Coke Zero Sugar 400 to earn that spot, and that number grew to 16 by the end of stage two.

If a new winner did not emerge in this 163-lap race around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) high-banked Daytona Beach, Florida oval, 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace was set to secure his first playoff spot during his six-year career.

If a new winner other than the two drivers already locked in on points did happen to emerge, that new winner would advance to the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs instead.

As the sport’s most popular driver and a former Cup Series champion, it made sense that Elliott was the non-winner who generated much of the attention heading into the evening. The three-time superspeedway race winner was even the betting favorite to find victory lane and thus lock himself into the postseason.

He led laps and ran up front all night, but the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet fell shy and had to settle for fourth place, keeping him out of the playoffs for the first time in his eight-year career.

But while a lot of the focus was on Elliott, it was actually Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola who came closest to knocking Wallace out of that 16th and final playoff spot.

Elliott made a move to pass Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick on the inside coming to the checkered flag, putting him behind only RFK Racing teammates Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski. But Almirola crept up on the outside and beat Elliott to the line by a couple of inches.

Of course, the position didn’t matter either way, since Buescher’s third win of the season solidified Wallace’s playoff spot. But it just goes to show that the playoff field will never truly be decided until the final lap of the final race of the regular season, no matter how far below the cut line a driver might be.

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

The 16 playoff drivers are set to begin their quest for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship this Sunday, September 3 at Darlington Raceway. The Cook Out Southern 500 is set to be broadcast live on USA Network beginning at 6:00 p.m. ET. Start a free trial of FuboTV now if you haven’t already and tune in!