What Elliott needs to do to make the Cup Series playoffs

Chase Elliott is back. After a six-week absence to allow his leg to heal from a snowboarding incident in Colorado, Elliott was cleared on Tuesday morning and able to return to the seat of his No. 9 Chevrolet this weekend at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway.

“We’re looking forward to having Chase back in his race car to pick up where he left off,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “Since the injury, he’s worked extremely hard and focused all his time and energy on returning to the No. 9 team. Throughout the last six weeks, he’s stayed fully engaged with everything we’re doing, and we know he’s chomping at the bit to get on the racetrack and compete for wins.”

The Process For Elliott While He Was Out

Elliott, 27, suffered a fractured tibia while snowboarding on March 3 and underwent successful surgery at The Steadman Clinic, a U.S. Olympic National Medical Center in Vail, Colorado. The 2020 Cup Series champion rehabilitated in Colorado before returning to his home in Dawsonville, Georgia, in late March to continue physical therapy.

Josh Berry drove the car in 5 of the 6 races with a best finish of second while Jordan Taylor drove the car in the other race at COTA, starting fourth and finishing 24th in his Cup debut. Berry was once again slated to drive this weekend, but Elliott is able to return and will now get back into his ride.

The process for Elliott to come back was he had to get clearance. That happened on Tuesday morning. Elliott then tested Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning in the Chevrolet Driver-in-the-Loop simulator in Concord, North Carolina, before making the final decision to return at Martinsville.

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – OCTOBER 02: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 02, 2022 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

What He Has To Do To Make Playoffs

NASCAR has already granted Elliott a medical waiver meaning that should he get himself into the top 16 in points, and/or win a race, then he’s in. Right now, he’s 34th in points at the moment. He trails the 16th spot in the standings by 134 points.

He had 18 races left in the regular season to make some magic happen. The 134 points to make up can honestly happen. Elliott will have a far better car than those in front of him in points and has been known to score a lot of stage points as well.

Plus, Elliott has a runner-up in Fontana already this year in one of his two races that he’s competed in.

However, I do think he wins at least one race out of the remaining 18 weeks. Just look at what’s ahead. While he was 10th in both Martinsville races last year, he dominated the first two stages of this very race last spring. Next up is Talladega, a place to where he won the last time out last Fall. Then they go to Dover. He also won there last spring.

Kansas and the Coca-Cola 600 may not be strong spots for him and maybe not at the World Wide Technology Raceway, but afterwards is Sonoma (8th last year) followed by a stretch to where he scored five consecutive Top-2 finishes at in Nashville (win), Road America (second), Atlanta (win), New Hampshire (second) and Pocono (win).

Out of the next 12 races that also has the inaugural street race in Chicago, I do feel like Elliott finds victory lane and stamps his name into the postseason.

The only thing he does have to worry about is more than 16 race winners which would have him fighting among the final few spots among them in since he’s so far back. However, even with all the parity last year, we still had one wildcard spot get in. That’s why with 7 different winners in the first 8 weeks, I do think 16th place in the standings may not get into the playoffs on points. It may be higher up which means Elliott’s most realistic path to the postseason is by winning.

He has plenty of chances left to do so.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – JULY 10: (L-R) Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, crew chief Alan Gustafson and NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Rick Hendrick stand during the national anthem prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 10, 2022 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Owners Points

Another under the radar topic among this too is owners points. Berry and Taylor still drove this car which means while Elliott is 34th in driver points, the 9 car is 20th in owners points. It’s 19 points out of 16th. With Elliott back, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that this ride won’t make the playoffs on the owners side.

“Having such high-caliber drivers available was a huge benefit, especially under difficult circumstances,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports. “Josh and Jordan each brought a tremendous amount of professionalism to our team, and we’re truly grateful for their contributions. Their preparation and talent made a big difference. We can’t overstate it.”

We saw this convoluted process last year with Kurt Busch making the playoffs but taking himself out when he didn’t return. The 45 car however stayed in the owners race which means despite Ryan Blaney making the drivers side, the 12 car wasn’t in the postseason on the owners race.

As a result, it jumbled things up for which Kyle Larson, despite being eliminated in the Round of 12 on the drivers side, still made the Championship 4 on the owners side.

Elliott has that luxury still even if he missed the playoffs on the drivers side to get this 9 car into the owners race.

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 09: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and crew chief Alan Gustafson talk on the grid after the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 09, 2022 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Gustafson Back

Another under the radar tidbit here is that Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson is also back. He was suspended four weeks for that louvers penalty. So, this weekend, the 9 car not only gets Elliott back, but also Gustafson to bring this team back to full strength.

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