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Friday 5: Chase Elliott remains focused on title this year, just not driver’s crown

Chase Elliott didn’t know what to expect when he entered the final 10 races of the season not having a chance to win a second driver’s championship.

He had never missed the playoffs in seven previous Cup seasons.

But Elliott has something to race for this season. He’s competing for a championship in the owner’s standings. Elliott enters Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) two points from the final transfer spot to the Round of 8 in that playoff race.

The owner point standings matters because that determines payouts to Cup teams via the charter system. The driver’s title is about fame. The owner’s title is about the money paid to teams.

“Nothing really feels any different, which is kind of odd,” Elliott said of racing for an owner’s title but not the driver’s crown. “I wasn’t really expecting that. I guess I wasn’t really thinking about that as we were leading into the cutoff, but now that we’re here, it feels like just another playoff year really.”

Of course, this year is unlike any for Elliott. He missed six races early in the season after a snowboarding accident and was suspended a race after wrecking Denny Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600. Elliott, who has 18 career Cup victories, has yet to win this season.

He is one of nine drivers who won a race last year but have not won this season. Elliott’s most recent victory came in last year’s playoff race at Talladega when he held off Ryan Blaney at the line.

Elliott was in a prime position to contend for the win last weekend at Texas, lining up fourth on the final restart. He got tight off Turn 2 on the restart with six laps to go and briefly fell to fifth. Elliott passed Chase Briscoe and then got to the back of Bubba Wallace as they ran down the backstretch. They went side-by-side in Turn 3 with Wallace on the inside of Elliott.

“I think (Wallace) just kind of missed (Turn) 3, the entrance to (Turn) 3, and I was to his outside and I ended up getting run up into the dirty part of the track there,” Elliott said. “I don’t think it was anything intentional. It (was) just kind of the way it worked out.

“He was at a bad angle, and we both drove in there really hard and, unfortunately, I was just kind of the one that was going to get to the trashy part of the track first. Once I got up there, I was just kind of hanging on and trying to get my car back collected and keep from crashing. Obviously, that stops your momentum.”

Elliott finished 11th.

The focus turns to Talladega and continuing the run Elliott has had in recent weeks. He has five top 10s in the last seven races. The exceptions being last weekend’s result and the 32nd-place finish at Watkins Glen when he ran out of fuel.

As for racing at Talladega, Elliott said: “I don’t really think it’s any different. I do think everyone has gotten smarter just with the way we plate race now and manage a race.

“I don’t mean smarter as in we’re not going to crash. I still think there’s going to be plenty of that that goes on, and, ultimately, you can just hope that you get through all of that and try to salvage a good points day. If you have a shot to win, try to grab the win. But, ultimately, I think, it’s just trying to survive the day.”

2. Keep grinding

Although William Byron secured a spot in the Round of 8 with last weekend’s victory at Texas, it doesn’t mean he takes the final two weeks of this round off.

The victory — also the 300th for Hendrick Motorsports — gives Byron a series-best 41 playoff points. That can be critical as Martin Truex Jr. has shown.

Truex entered the playoffs with 36 playoff points. He needed nearly all of them to avoid becoming the first regular-season champion to be eliminated in the opening round. He may need them again if he continues to struggle in this round.

Byron a force to be reckoned with in NASCAR
Nate Ryan and Dale Jarrett fully anticipate that William Byron will be one of the Championship 4 eligible drivers at Phoenix Raceway after he still won at Texas despite not having a dominant car.

Byron knows he could need all those points — and whatever playoff points he scores in the next two races — to advance from the Round of 8 to the championship race in Phoenix.

“If you let your guard down going into a weekend, you can easily end up with a 15th- to 20th-place finish,” Byron said. “It’s really trying to just approach each weekend as its own thing, and that’ll apply for us when we go to Vegas. When we get through Vegas, we’ll go to Homestead and approach it like it’s a completely different race.”

Byron has yet to advance to the title race. He reached the Round of 8 last season for the first time, continuing his progression in the playoffs. Byron was eliminated in the first round in 2020. He made it to the second round in 2021. He reached the third round last year, falling 21 points short of making it to the title race.

Byron says he sees a change in himself from last year’s playoffs, which included him wrecking Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas in retaliation for a move Hamlin made to him.

“I think I just look back at my whole career and look at the moments that I just got too excited and jumped the gun and made a mistake,” Byron said after his win last week at Texas.

“I think last year even looking back at last year’s (Texas) race, just getting emotional, getting just caught up in the moment too much in terms of emotion and not really staying in the moment and making the right decisions.

“I think this year has been different in that way. I find myself when I have chances to win, it’s almost calming. I feel like for me I kind of just stay patient, and I’ve worked really hard to manage those emotions that come up throughout the race.

“Yeah, I think it is -- for me it’s a grind mentally, I guess, more than physically, but it’s just the grind of kind of staying in it.”

3. Repeat performance?

The question to Ryan Blaney this week was how much pressure he feels since he is 11 points below the cutline heading into Sunday’s race at Talladega, the middle event in the Round of 12.

“You’re gonna find yourself behind at some point in the playoffs, whether it’s in round one, round two or round three you’re gonna find yourself behind at some point and you’re gonna have to find a way to make up points and have really good days,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been in this spot before.”

He has.

In the 2019 playoffs, Blaney finished 35th at Dover, the opening race of the Round of 12, after a mechanical failure. That left him 22 points below the cutline going into Talladega. Blaney won that race to advance to the Round of 8.

Blaney is 11 points below the cutline after he was caught speeding late in the race at Texas, putting him at the back of the field. He then was involved in a crash.

“We don’t have to go win Talladega,” Blaney said of his predicament. “We’re not in that spot. I was surprised I was only 11 points down after I saw the points after I wrecked, which shocked me.

“I thought I was gonna be way more out of it. … You still have two races to try to go run well and make up the points you lost. It’s just the way it goes sometimes and you have to be prepared, whether it’s protect your points or try to fight from below the cut line.

You’re gonna have both if you continue to go in the playoffs. It’s not always gonna go great. You have to be ready to manage some down times and make up for it.”

4. 2024 Cup dates trickling out

While NASCAR has yet to announce the Cup, Xfinity and Truck schedules, some tracks are releasing dates. Here is what has been announced for the 2024 Cup schedule:

Feb. 4 — Busch Light Clash at LA Memorial Coliseum

Feb. 18 — Daytona 500

May 19 — All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway

July 21 — Indianapolis Motor Speedway (oval)

Nov. 3 — Championship race at Phoenix

While not announced, one can count on the Coca-Cola 600 being held on Memorial Day weekend. That would be May 26, the same day as the Indianapolis 500. Kyle Larson is set to become the first driver in 10 years to compete in both events.

Bristol has previously announced that its spring date will be held on concrete, doing away with the race on dirt there. No date has been announced for that event.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s website lists its spring race in March but TBD on exact date. Atlanta Motor Speedway’s website also lists its spring race in March 2024 but does not have an exact date. Sonoma’s website lists its Cup race as June 2024 but has no date listed.

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Dustin Long, Brad Daugherty, and Parker Kligerman preview the second Round of 12 NASCAR Cup playoff race at Talladega, where Kyle Busch, Bubba Wallace, and Brad Keselowski are feeling the pressure below the cutline.

5. Staying out of trouble

Chris Buescher looks to finish this season with top-five results at all four Daytona and Talladega Cup races this season.

That was last done by Denny Hamlin in 2020. Hamlin won the Daytona 500 and Talladega playoff race that season, along with placing third in the Daytona regular-season finale and fourth in the spring Talladega race.

Buescher was fourth in the Daytona 500, third in the spring Talladega race and won the Daytona regular-season finale.

On the other side, Kyle Larson is trying to finish in at least the top 15 for the first time this season at either Daytona or Talladega.

He was eliminated by an accident in the Daytona 500, finishing 18th. He was in that vicious crash with Ryan Preece in the spring Talladega race, placing 33rd. Larson was collected in a crash in the Daytona regular-season finale. He continued and placed 27th, two laps down.

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott has had his stretches of being collected in crashes at those tracks and understands what Larson has experienced this season.

“Look, you can only do so much and there’s going to be times where things are out of your control,” Elliott said. “I think that’s what’s happened to Kyle, really, more often than not.”