CONCORD, North Carolina — Chase Elliott had Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 won. It was signed, sealed and delivered. Then came that fluke Lap 103 caution that altered the complexity of not only the Round of 12 elimination race, but for how this year’s championship could potentially get decided as well.
If not for that caution, Kyle Larson is in and Christopher Bell is out. Also, Elliott would have 51 playoff points to take with him into the third of four rounds of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Instead, Larson is out, Bell is in and so is Chase Briscoe too. Bell got in via a win that was taken away from Elliott due to how the second to last restart transpired.
That cost Elliott 5 much needed playoff points in a round that he feels like he may need them on.
“I think it’s going to be a really tough round,” Elliott admitted after a 20th place finish in Charlotte. “Vegas was a struggle for us in the spring. Homestead, we’ve just been really hit-or-miss there. We did have a test there a couple weeks ago, so hopefully we’ve learned from that. Martinsville, it’s just going to be about how you qualify because I don’t see anybody passing there. We’ll see how it goes. Try to bring our A-game. It would have been nice to have some more points from today, but we didn’t and we’ll try again out in Las Vegas.”
Elliott has finished outside the top 10 in 5 of the last 7 races now on the season. If he doesn’t win in any of the next 3 weeks, then he could be in a dire situation in relying on points and those 5 points that got away from him on Sunday could come back to bite him.
5 of the 8 years under this format saw the regular season champion march all the way to the Championship 4 including 4 of the last 5 years. In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. won the regular season title and didn’t win in the Round of 8 to get to the final round. Same for Kyle Busch in 2019. Kevin Harvick won in 2018 (Texas) and Kyle Larson won 2 of the 3 races in this round last year.
Prior to a runner-up in last year’s playoff race in Vegas, Elliott had just two career top fives on this track with his last three finishes being 26th, 22nd,13th and 9th respectively. He has five finishes of 22nd or worse there too and was only 29th and 11th at Kansas. For Homestead, he has 3 top 7’s in his last 5 starts there, but he’s winless overall and also at Darlington too. He was 5th and 36th this past year at Darlington and 21st the last time out at Homestead.
Martinsville is his best shot. Elliott won the pole and dominated the first 2 stages back in the spring before a pit road penalty relegated him to a top 10 instead of a top 5. Elliott won the 2020 Fall race en route to a Championship 4 appearance here. He also has four top fives in his last 7 Martinsville starts, three of them being in the top two.
What makes him nervous is how well others that remain in the postseason could be this round. The Toyota’s may be difficult to beat in the next two weeks and they now have momentum again.
“All of (the tracks in the third round) are P1 for me and I like all of them,” said Denny Hamlin. “All of them are just perfect for what our strength is, especially with the Toyotas and myself. I’m excited. We had a good test at Martinsville and even though we finished bad there in the spring. We’re going to have to qualify well there and track position is going to be huge. We’re going to go to work and really excited about our prospects in this next round.”
Hamlin won this Vegas race last year and was 4th and 2nd respectively in the 2 Kansas races at that. He also has 3 top 4 finishes in his last 4 Vegas starts too. For Homestead, he swept both stages and the win in 2020 and was 11th last year. Hamlin also had a top 5 car in both Darlington races earlier this season too.
Martinsville ironically enough is going to be his worst track this round. 4 of his last 5 Martinsville finishes have seen him come home 11th or worse (28th in the spring). However, he was dominant prior to that though too.
The driver to finish third in the Championship 4 has made it to at least the Round of 8 in each of the last 5 years with 3 of the 5 being in the Championship 4. That’s good news for Hamlin.
What about for Christopher Bell. The driver to win the 6th round of the playoffs has gone on to win the championship that season 6 times including 2 straight. Bell is also good on these tracks too.
He had a top 10 car the last 2 times out in Vegas and a top 5 in both races at Kansas. He was in the top 10 last year at Homestead and a top 6 in both Darlington races this season too. While Martinsville wasn’t a strong suit for him, on like tracks, he had a pair of top 6’s at Richmond including a runner-up in August as well as a win at Loudon this past July.
“I mean, I feel extremely good about what we have going on here in the next three races,” he said. “Ever since the schedule laid out and we were looking at the Playoffs, the round of 16 all were really good racetracks for us, the Round of 8 were good racetracks for us. The round of 12 with Talladega and this racetrack in there, I was super concerned and nervous. I still felt like we were going to be able to make it through it because we’re really good at Texas and we should be able to get through Texas with a good points day.
“Whenever we left there with a whopping three points, I was just really down, down in the dumps, sad. Then we went to Talladega, and we needed a home run. We needed lot of points, and we didn’t score a lot of points. This whole last two weeks, I had been extremely deflated, just kind of down in the dumps.
“Now I can promise you I’m as excited as ever heading into these next three races.”
You also have to contend with William Byron who won the last race at 2 of the 3 tracks this round. Ross Chastain is always good at Vegas and was 5th in Martinsville this spring. Chase Briscoe has 3 straight top 10 finishes now and won the spring race at Phoenix. I didn’t even mention the Penske tandem still left…Each can win at any of these 3 tracks and will give Elliott a fight for the clock in Martinsville too.