NASCAR: 17 drivers, not 16, are still competing for a title

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images) /

Because the No. 9 team made it into the owner playoffs, Chase Elliott still has a NASCAR Cup Series championship to fight for, even if it is on the owner side.

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoff field is set following Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway, a race won by RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher.

Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott was one of the drivers who entered this 160-lap race around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) high-banked Daytona Beach, Florida in need of a win to qualify for the playoffs, and he could not pull it off, bringing an end to his seven-year streak of making it to the postseason.

Because none of the other must-win drivers in Elliott’s situation found victory lane either, 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace secured the 16th and final remaining playoff spot on points. The playoff berth is the first of his six-year career.

However, there are 17 drivers, not 16, still competing for a 2023 NASCAR Cup Series title. And yes, one of them is Chase Elliott.

One of the key reasons why Elliott missed the playoffs is because of the fact that he missed seven races earlier this season, six due to an injury he suffered in a snowboarding accident and one due to a suspension for wrecking Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Even with a number of DNF’s and/or finishes outside the top 30, Elliott’s points per race average was still good enough for the top 10, indicating that he probably would have been in the playoffs, even as a winless driver, had he competed in all 26 races.

Alas, he only competed in 19, and he missed the postseason. However, it was his No. 9 team, not Wallace’s No. 23 team, which was the 16th and final team to qualify for the owner playoffs.

There usually isn’t much discussion about the owner playoffs compared to the driver playoffs, since the playoff drivers largely drive the same cars every race. However, owner points are tied to the car, not the driver, so Elliott’s three different replacement drivers during his seven missed starts were still able to score points for the No. 9 team.

Those substitute appearances were highlighted by Josh Berry’s impressive run to second place at Richmond Raceway back in April.

So while Elliott himself can finish no higher than a career-worst 17th place in the point standings, he can still win this year’s owner championship for the No. 9 team, as his team outscored the No. 23 team for that final playoff spot.

On the flip side, Wallace himself can mathematically end up being crowned 2023 champion while the No. 23 team can finish no higher than 17th place in the owner standings.

If this situation sounds familiar, it’s because it is.

Last year, 23XI Racing’s Kurt Busch qualified himself and his No. 45 team for the playoffs with a regular season win at Kansas Speedway, but he opted to withdraw from the postseason due to an injury he suffered in the weeks leading up to the end of the regular season.

That opened up the 16th and final playoff spot for Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, the only winless driver in last year’s postseason. However, Busch’s No. 45 team still made it to the owner playoffs; Blaney’s No. 12 team did not.

In an attempt to bolster the No. 45 team’s chances to advance throughout the playoffs, 23XI Racing moved Wallace, who did not qualify for the playoffs himself, to the No. 45 Toyota for the postseason.

In this instance, Wallace himself could finish no higher than 17th place in the point standings, yet he could have won the owner’s championship for the No. 45 team. Blaney could have been crowned champion, but the No. 12 team could finish no higher than 17th in the owner standings.

Wallace did end up locking the No. 45 team into the round of 12 with a round of 16 win at Kansas, but it would advance no further. Blaney made it to the round of 8.

Once again in 2023, despite the fact that only 16 drivers can still be crowned NASCAR Cup Series champion in November at Phoenix Raceway, there are 17 drivers still competing for a title over the next 10 weekends.

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Darlington Raceway is scheduled to host the opening playoff race this Sunday, September 3 at 6:00 p.m. ET. The Cook Out Southern 500 is set to be broadcast live on USA Network. Begin a free trial of FuboTV today if you have not yet done so!