NASCAR: Chase Elliott situation complicates playoffs

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR playoffs - Mandatory Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR playoffs - Mandatory Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports /

Because Chase Elliott’s team is in the playoffs but he isn’t, the NASCAR driver and owner playoffs could see different eliminations in each round.

Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott missed the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs for the first time in his eight-year career this year after missing seven of the 26 races on the regular season schedule, six due to injury and one due to suspension.

The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet finished the regular season with a top 10 points per race average, but because he went winless and his point total wasn’t good enough for the top 16, he fell shy of the playoffs.

His absence from the playoffs ended a seven-year playoff streak, a seven-year round of 12 streak, a seven-year top 10 points streak, a six-year round of 8 streak, a three-year Championship 4 streak, and a 134-race streak of being in championship contention. All but the seven-year playoff streak had been the longest streaks among active drivers.

However, Elliott’s No. 9 team still qualified for the playoffs, as his replacements during his seven missed starts could still score points for the team. Josh Berry’s runner-up finish at Richmond Raceway in April was the highlight.

As a result, Elliott’s No. 9 team finished the regular season with more points than the No. 23 team of 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace, so the No. 9 team got the 16th and final spot in the owner playoffs, even though Wallace himself got the 16th and final spot in the driver playoffs and made it to the postseason for the first time in his career.

This scenario has created two different NASCAR Cup Series playoff cut lines.

Elliott is not a playoff driver, yet he has his No. 9 team positioned in eighth place in the owner standings heading into the round of 16 finale at Bristol Motor Speedway. Wallace, meanwhile, sits below the round of 12 cut line in 14th in the driver standings.

As a result of where the No. 9 team is and where Wallace is, the cut line is higher in the owner standings than it is in the driver standings.

For example, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick is the last driver above the cut line on the driver side, seven points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr.

But on the owner side, Harvick’s No. 4 team is the first team below the cut line, sitting five points behind the No. 22 team of Team Penske’s Joey Logano for the final spot. Truex’s No. 19 team is 12 points below the cutoff instead of just seven.

The No. 47 team of JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 27 points behind instead of 22, and the No. 34 team of Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell is 45 points behind instead of 40. All of the teams above the owner cut line are also five points closer to it than their drivers are.

So while Elliott can still win the owner championship for his team despite not being a playoff driver and Wallace can still be crowned champion despite his team not being in the playoffs, it is entirely possible that we could see a totally different driver’s team eliminated in the round of 16 while that driver goes on to win the title.

A similar situation unfolded a year ago, when 23XI Racing’s Kurt Busch withdrew from the playoffs due to injury, handing his spot to Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney. But Busch’s regular season win remained tied to his No. 45 team, so the No. 45 team, not Blaney’s No. 12 team, got into the owner playoffs.

23XI Racing moved Wallace, who was not a playoff driver himself, from his usual No. 23 Toyota to the No. 45 Toyota for the playoffs. He won the round of 16 race at Kansas Speedway to get the No. 45 team into the round of 12.

As it turned out, because of the differences in the cut lines between the owner playoffs and the driver playoffs, there were a few additional differences. Kyle Larson was eliminated in the round of 12, but his No. 5 team made it to the Championship 4. Elliott made it to his third straight Championship 4, but his No. 9 team was eliminated in the round of 8.

The No. 45 team made it to the round of 12, despite Wallace not being a playoff driver, and Blaney made it to the round of 8, despite his No. 12 team not even being a playoff team and therefore having no upside greater than 17th place in the standings.

Such a scenario could very well unfold again this year, as evidenced by where the cut lines stand heading into this Saturday night’s round of 16 finale, and it’s entirely possible that drivers who have nothing to do with Elliott and Wallace end up involved, just as we saw last year.

Larson remains the favorite to win this year’s championship, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, which is giving fans $200 just for signing up and placing a single $5 bet.

With odds and availability always subject to change, lock in your $200 now!

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Tune in to USA Network this Saturday, September 16 at 7:30 p.m. ET for the live broadcast of the Bass Pro Shops Nights Race from Bristol Motor Speedway. If you have not yet had the chance to begin a free trial of FuboTV, now would be a great time to do so!