Chase Elliott is on the verge of his first NASCAR Cup Series regular season crown. He just needs to be 60 points ahead of 2nd place in points at the drop of the checkered flag for Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen (3 p.m. ET, USA, MRN) at Watkins Glen. Right now, he’s 116 points up on Ryan Blaney with two races left in the 26 race regular season.
Blaney would not only have to sweep both stages in Sunday’s race as well as win the race in order to keep this fight going to next Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona, but he also has to hope Elliott scores 0 stage points and finished 34th or worse himself.
Elliott is likely taking home some hardware and 15 additional playoff points. He’d become the 5th different driver to win the 6 regular season championships. 3 of the previous 5 years the driver to win the regular season crown ended up winning the championship in the Fall as well.
2017 – Truex (champion)
2018 – KyBusch (4th)
2019 – KyBusch (champion)
2020 – Harvick (Round of 8)
2021 – Larson (champion)
However, it’s occurred in an every other year trend. If that trend holds, Elliott will at least make it to the Round of 8 but won’t be the champion.
Blaney though is hoping just to make the playoffs. Right now, he leads Martin Truex Jr. by 26 points for the 16th and final playoff spot. Blaney actually extended his lead over Truex last week at Richmond which had to feel like a win for him and a massive loss to Truex.
See, Richmond was likely Truex’ last shot at victory this regular season. Toyota’s have been terrible on road courses this year meaning I can’t see them magically being better this weekend in Watkins Glen. In 2 of the last 3 road races, they failed to put 1 of their 6 premiere cars in the top 10. The top finisher in Sonoma was 18th. The best in Road America was 13th. While Wallace was scored with a top 5 at Indy, the rest went 11-12-14-17-21.
Then it’s to Daytona to where Truex is 0-for-34 in the Cup Series at. For Talladega, he’s 0-for-35 to make him a combined 0-for-69 with 6 total top 5 finishes.
So it’s almost down to points racing for him. Both tracks a lot of drivers punt on stage points. Truex swept both stages at Daytona back in February and can take the free points this weekend too. That leaves it up to Blaney to figure out what he wants to do.
He’s been a top 11 car at 3 of the 4 road course races this season but is he going to have a race winning capable car? It may be safer to just take the points too.
Daytona is his best shot at victory as he’s the defending race winner there.
The thing is, it’s not just down to them. 13 drivers just need to win and win only. They can’t get into the postseason on points so they can go off strategy and punt away on anything for the stages that would take away track position for when it matters.
That furthers the cause to where 4 of the last 5 road course races that we’ve seen some newness to victory lane. On top of that, 3 of the last 4 races at Daytona have seen a 1st time winner including 7 of the last 10 overall winning either their 1st or 2nd career Cup race in general. 6 of the last 11 road course races were won by a driver scoring their 1st or 2nd career win including 5 of the last 6 at that.
That opens up Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland, Ty Dillon and Corey LaJoie for 1st time winners. LaJoie has to get into the top 30 in points too. He’s 53 points behind Dillon for that position. If he wins say Daytona but can’t catch Dillon, it’s all for not. He’d still not be playoff eligible.
On the flip side, someone like Kurt Busch has to hope we don’t get 2 new winners because he’s the lowest on the totem pole among 1 time winners this season. He’s 64 points behind Chase Briscoe for that spot and 71 behind Austin Cindric.
If one of the 15 drivers that have already won a race this season ends up victorious in Watkins Glen, then all 15 clinch a spot to the postseason. If someone new wins, then it’s basically down to the new winner, Alex Bowman (+107), Daniel Suarez (+89), Cindric (+71), Briscoe (+64) and Busch.
You can’t discount someone like Michael McDowell. He’s a road racer by nature and was 3rd in Sonoma, 8th in Road America and 8th again at Indy. For Daytona, he won the 2021 Daytona 500, was 5th in the 2019 Daytona 500 and 9th in the 2018 Daytona 500. Furthermore, since July 2014, the Arizona native has 7 top 10 finishes in his last 15 Daytona starts and with teams like Leavine Family Racing and Front Row Motorsports at that. He was 7th in February as well as 8th in Talladega this spring too.
Chris Buescher also has 1 career win (Pocono 2016) and was runner-up to Suarez in Sonoma, 6th in Road America last month and 10th at Indy. He also has five top 10 finishes in his last 10 Daytona starts and coming off of a runner-up in Richmond.
These are the top 2 drivers trends say will win the next 2 weeks.
Burton (3rd at Indy) and Gilliland (4th at Indy) could be in play as well. So could Justin Haley who’s only career Cup win came at Daytona and a driver who’s been so good on superspeedway’s in the Xfinity Series.
Cindric though is quite possibly the top sleeper to watch in general the next 2 weeks. He was 8th, 5th, 7th and 2nd in road course races this season and won the Daytona 500 back in February. He led a group of 3 rookies to finish in the top 4 the last road course out at Indy last month.
Can any of them slow Kevin Harvick though? He went from having to win a race to get in to winning 2 straight weeks. From 0 wins in 687 days (65 race winless drought) to scoring 2 wins in 7 days, can he win a 3rd time in 3 weeks?
Odds aren’t on his side as he’s also only had 1 top 5 in his last 14 Watkins Glen starts.
Still, it’s not about this week. Harvick is one that has bolstered himself to the front runners as championship favorites.
Harvick won at Michigan. Not truly a surprise in the sense that he’s been so dominant there lately. The win at Richmond was more eye opening. Yes, he finished runner-up there this past spring, but his last win on the .75-mile Virginia oval was way back in 2013.
To come out and win Sunday’s race and do so a week after ending a winless drought to me is making a statement. Harvick has entered the championship chat.
It’s all about getting hot at the right moment and that moment could be time for the 2014 series champion. He maybe got too hot too soon in that 2020 season to which he won 9 times but failed to make the Championship 4.
Maybe what he’s doing now is peak Harvick. He started out slow but it wasn’t like they weren’t trying. In 2020, they had the speed early on. During the season, it would have been hard to find areas for the 4 car to improve upon. Others were searching and in turn passed them from the 2nd round forward.
That plus NASCAR changing the inspection process and now a new car made life difficult for Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers to find that advantage back. However, with a seasons worth of notes accumulating and now visiting tracks a 2nd time, they’re back in the hunt.
Richmond was a key to showing that.
What’s scary for the field is, 7 of the 10 playoff races are return trips. Even scarier, Phoenix is still the championship race and that’s a place Harvick has won 9 times at. We’ve always said that if he can get there and already be in the Championship 4, then watch out. He has a realistic shot of getting there.
Phoenix runs like Richmond and Harvick has a pair of top 2 finishes at Richmond this season. Earlier this year at Phoenix, Harvick restarted in the top 3 late but didn’t have a great car on restarts to which he slid back a bit by the end. You’ve got to think they’ll have that car better this time around.
The other track Phoenix races like is Loudon, a place he was 5th at last month for his 8th top 5 in his last 9 starts there.
Harvick would be the man to beat moving forward….
So who does win Sunday’s race?
Chevrolet has won 14 of the last 15 road course races including 10 straight. Hendrick Motorsports is usually the favored organization on these tracks but they’re 0-for-4 this season on them.
Elliott has 6 top 5 finishes in his last 8 starts on the season and has 3 straight top 2’s at Watkins Glen. Kyle Larson won this race last year but has been 15th or worse in 3 of his 4 road course starts this season and just 1 top 5 in last 6 tries overall this season. William Byron (0 top 5’s in his last 16 starts) and Alex Bowman (0 top 5’s in his last 13 starts and 1 in the last 18) are slumping. That’s why it’s down to Elliott to get them their 1st road course victory in the Next Gen.
Trackhouse Racing and Richard Childress Racing have swept the road races in 2022 with Ross Chastain (3 top 7’s in 4 road races this season) and Daniel Suarez (He won Sonoma, led every lap of the 1st stage in COTA, was 5th in Road America and lined up 5th on the final restart in Indy) thriving for Trackhouse. Tyler Reddick won the last 2 road course events as those 2 plus his Pocono runner-up though are his only top 5’s in his last 12 starts on the season though too. 4 of Reddick’s last 6 finishes have been 21st or worse. For Chastain, his last 4 finishes are 32nd, 27th, 24th and 18th respectively which opens the door to maybe the Trackhouse duo or Elliott.
Joey Logano (3 straight top 6’s) is heating up but his last four finishes at Watkins Glen are 24th, 37th, 23rd and 22nd respectively. His 4 road course finishes this season are 31st, 17th, 27th and 6th respectively.
That’s why this race is so wide open right now.