NASCAR: Time for Chase Elliott, No. 9 team to hit the panic button?

Chase Elliott and the No. 9 team have had an under-the-radar start to the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season, but that might not be a bad thing.

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR / Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Hendrick Motorsports' Chase Elliott finished in a relatively quiet 12th place at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon in the Pennzoil 400 in what was considered the start of the "real" 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season following two drafting races.

Going back to last year, Elliott has now finished outside of the top 10 in seven straight races and outside of the top five in 11 straight. His win drought sits at 37 races, even if you exclude the seven races he misesd last year (six with an injury, one due to a suspension).

Elliott sits in seventh place in the point standings through three races, but he is the only driver in the top 18 without a single top 10 finish. Two of his teammates, who combined to win 10 races last year while the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet went winless for the first time since 2017, have already won a race.

The 2024 season was largely viewed as a potential bounce-back season for Elliott after he saw a long list of series-high streaks come to an end last year.

Entering last year, he led the series in consecutive multi-win seasons (five), consecutive top 10 points finishes (seven), consecutive round of 12 appearances (seven), consecutive round of 8 appearances (six), consecutive Championship 4 appearances (three), and consecutive races as a championship-eligible driver (108; 134 before last year's playoffs).

The 2023 season ended all of those streaks.

While finishes of 14th and 15th place in superspeedway races to open up the season can't be taken with too much more than a grain of salt, does yet another lackluster result at a "regular" track mean that it could soon be time to panic for the No. 9 team -- if it isn't already?

That really shouldn't be anything other than a hard no.

While he may not have a top 10 finish to his name since early last October, when he still managed to guide his No. 9 team to a seventh straight trip the round of 8 in the owner playoffs, his worst finish of 15th place this season is tied for the best worst finish in the series. His average finish is better than that of teammate, points leader, and Las Vegas race winner Kyle Larson.

Let's not forget that he was the points leader after five races in the 2022 season, and he did not record a single top five finish in any of those races. After four races two years ago, his average finish is worse than it is now, and he was in third place.

His first win didn't come until May, but he went on to lead the series in wins, average finish, laps led, and total points scored en route to a third straight Championship 4 appearance.

He clearly knows how to get around in the Next Gen car, and while his stats last year weren't nearly as good (even aside from his seven missed starts), his average finish was among the top five in the series -- again, even better than that of Larson, who made it to the Championship 4 with a four-win season.

Even now, his average finish is tied for sixth best, and he has actually led as many or more laps than two of the drivers above him in that category.

Elliott's performance is not a major concern at this point. There are probably five or six other drivers who you could argue have had lackluster starts to the season, but nobody has really taken notice since (a) we're three races into the season, (b) only one race has been a non-drafting race, and (c) those drivers don't have all eyes on them after an overly disappointing 2023 season.

Seven of Elliott's 18 career wins have come in the playoffs, including six in the round of 12 or later, so the No. 9 team know when to show up when it counts. As the only driver with three Championship 4 appearances in the last four seasons, Elliott has proven he knows how to maneuver his way through the playoffs in the modern format.

The fact that he guided the No. 9 team to the third round last year -- in a "down" season -- with a massive playoff point deficit to the rest of the field speaks to that fact. The regular season is nice for momentum and playoff points and all of that, but races 27 through 36 are what really count.

As much as we all know there is going to be that narrative until he ends his ongoing win drought, nobody should be panicking after a 12th place finish, especially not at a track where he has historically struggled, having recorded just two top 10 finishes in his most recent seven starts heading into last Sunday.

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The next race on the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series schedule is the Shriners Children's 500, which is set to be broadcast live on Fox from Phoenix Raceway beginning at 3:30 pm. ET on Sunday, March 10. Begin a free trial of FuboTV and don't miss it!