Chase Elliott may not be a playoff driver, but he has his No. 9 team tied for third place in the NASCAR Cup Series owner standings.
Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott may have missed the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs for the first time in his eight-year career this year, largely because he missed more than a quarter of the 26-race regular season — and was unable to win any of the 19 races in which he competed.
But because of the fact that Elliott’s replacements behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet scored points during the seven races he missed, it was the No. 9 team, not the No. 23 team of 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace, which locked up the 16th and final spot in the owner playoffs. Wallace himself locked up the 16th and final spot in the driver playoffs.
So while becoming a two-time Cup Series champion is off the table for the sport’s most popular driver in 2023, winning a second owner championship in the last four years is still an achievable goal.
And it looks a lot more possible than it once did.
Even with Elliott still having owner championship to fight for amid his own playoff absence, not much thought was given to the fact that the No. 9 team made it to the owner playoffs.
It wasn’t just because Elliott had had somewhat of a lackluster season, failing to win a regular season race for the first time since 2017, or the fact that he may have lacked motivation to compete at the highest level possible as a non-playoff driver.
Who knows? Maybe he’d be more interested in following the potential championship runs for his Georgia Bulldogs or Atlanta Braves at this point.
No; it was because the No. 9 team was disadvantaged by having just one playoff point, the playoff Elliott earned by winning the opening stage at Talladega Superspeedway back in April.
The team did not finish in the top 10 in the regular season owner standings, despite Elliott himself posting one of the best 10 average finishes among all drivers, and thus scored no additional playoff points.
Even with that in mind, he hasn’t lacked any motivation.
It didn’t stop Elliott from taking the No. 9 team to the round of 12 with a strong round of 16, and after the second of three races in the quarterfinal round at Talladega, which saw him cross the finish line backwards, he has the team positioned in a third place tie in the owner standings, 19 points above the round of 8 cut line.
Considering the fact that every one of the other remaining playoff teams has double digit playoff points, Elliott’s performance to get his team into this position is even more impressive.
Now the 27-year-old Dawsonville, Georgia native, whose experience and success in the playoffs is best characterized not only by his 2020 title but the fact that he entered 2023 as the only driver to appear in each of the last three Championship 4 rounds, is set to close out the round of 8 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, which has been one of his best tracks.
The third winningest road course driver in Cup Series history has won twice at the track, having driven from the back to do so on both occasions in 2019 and 2020.
There is a very real possibility that Chase Elliott finishes in 17th place in the standings while he takes the No. 9 team to the NASCAR Cup Series owner championship.
In fact, we could see two different winners even if he doesn’t.
Because of the fact that Elliott himself isn’t in the driver playoffs while the No. 9 team is in the owner playoffs, plus the fact that Wallace is in the driver playoffs while the No. 23 team isn’t in the owner playoffs, the round of 8 cut line is in two different spots for the driver playoffs and the owner playoffs heading into the round of 12 finale.
With RFK Racing’s Brad Keselowski ahead of Wallace in the driver standings, he currently occupies the eighth and final spot above the cut line.
But with the No. 9 team above Keselowski’s No. 6 team, the No. 6 team is actually below the cut line on the owner side, 13 points behind the No. 5 team of Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson in the eighth and final spot.
Every other team below the No. 6 team is also 13 points farther behind on the owner side than their drivers are on the driver side.
We could end up in a complicated situation like we did last year, where just because a driver advances to the round of 8 doesn’t mean his team does and just because a team advances to the round of 8 doesn’t mean their driver does.
Last year, the No. 45 team made it to the round of 12. 23XI Racing had moved Wallace to the No. 45 Toyota to replace the injured Kurt Busch since the No. 45 team had already qualified for the owner playoffs with Busch’s regular season win at Kansas Speedway, but Wallace himself was not a playoff driver.
Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney made the round of 8 despite the No. 12 team not even making it to the playoffs (thanks to the No. 45 team’s inclusion, despite Busch’s own withdrawal), Larson was eliminated in the round of 12 while his No. 5 team went on to the Championship 4, and Elliott made it to the Championship 4 while his No. 9 team was eliminated in the round of 8.
Confusing situations such as these were avoided this year following the round of 16, since the four drivers who were eliminated also saw their teams eliminated. Both the No. 9 team and Wallace advanced in their respective playoffs, so there was no drama.
But we could be set up for a much more interesting scenario following the round of 12. How strange would it be if Wallace wins the championship with a team that finishes in 17th place in the owner standings while the championship-winning team’s driver finishes in 17th in the driver standings?
It’s a Catch-22 situation for Elliott fans. On one hand, you want your driver to win the championship for the No. 9 team. On the other hand, if he does, you are going to be wondering what could have been, considering the fact that the driver playoffs and owner playoffs utilize the same advancement format.
In other words, the thought that “had he been in, he would have won” will surely be on the minds of NASCAR’s largest driver fanbase for quite some time.
The round of 12 of this year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is scheduled to conclude this Sunday, October 8 with the Bank of America Roval 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race is set to be aired live on NBC beginning at 2:00 p.m. ET, so begin a free trial of FuboTV today if you have not already done so!