Almost lost in Chase Elliott‘s victory Sunday was that he went from flirting with the playoff bubble to solidifying his spot in the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Elliott won for the first time in 99 career Cup starts and notched the 250th Cup victory for Hendrick Motorsports when he outraced the field to the checkered flag in the Go Bowling At The Glen.
Granted, he had a 129-point cushion on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the final spot on points, but if two drivers outside the current 16 drivers in the playoff grid had won races, he could have missed out.
“I thought we had got ourselves in a pretty good points position,” Elliott crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “We had to be pretty aggressive … on strategy and different things to win the race, so I thought we’d got ourselves in a pretty good points position where we could be a little bit more aggressive and not have to count every point.”
The points Elliott does count are the playoff points. He has earned eight playoff points in the last three races after not winning a stage in the first 19.
“You never know until you’re in, right?” Gustafson said. “So it’s good to get in. For me, probably a little bigger than that is just trying to stack up some playoff points. That’s a huge deal going through this run. We were really close, didn’t make it to Homestead last year, and I think if we would have had a few more playoff points it might have made it a little easier.”
There are four races left in the regular season: Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis. The regular-season champion and then the next 15 drivers based on wins (as long as they are in the top-30 in the standings), with ties broken by points, comprise the 16-driver playoff field.
Here’s a look at the playoff picture:
Locks With A Win
Elliott and Jones are the only newcomers to join this list in the last 12 races. With eight drivers having wins, that means at least four spots will be available on points. It more than likely will be seven or eight.
All five of these drivers have at least a 178-point cushion on the current cutoff. That’s more than three races. They also have at least a 76-point lead on Jimmie Johnson, who currently is in the 15th position on the playoff grid. In the last four weeks, Blaney has moved from the “keep pace and in” up to this position thanks to four finishes in the top-12 in the last four races, as well as earning 28 stage points in the last four races.
Keep Pace & In
Almirola has a 39-point edge on Johnson, which means if he just continues his pace, he should remain ahead of him. His only danger is if there are three upsets in the next four races or if he has horrible days.
On the Bubble
Johnson, Alex Bowman
Elliott’s win leaves these two drivers remaining on the good side of the bubble — but still on the bubble. They are an upset or two away from not getting into the playoffs.
Johnson has a 102-point edge on Stenhouse and is ahead of Bowman by 40 points. So he shouldn’t have much to worry about as far as being caught. He just has to run his races (in other words, don’t try fuel mileage, right?) and avoid days like he had at Watkins Glen where a wreck relegated him to 30th. If he has an opportunity for stage points, he needs to continue to earn them. And he needs everyone outside the top-16 to not get a win.
Bowman had a career-best third at Pocono, but that was his only top-10 in the last four races. He also has had just 13 stage points the last four races, yet he’s improved to 62 points ahead of Stenhouse. Much like Johnson, he’ll be sweating if someone outside the top-16 pulls off an upset. By the way, as much as that is being said, only one driver currently outside the top-16 in points — Austin Dillon in the Daytona 500 — has won this year.
Biggest Threats Outside Bubble
Stenhouse has lost 43 points to Bowman in the last four races and now is 62 points behind. Can he really win? He feels good about Bristol.
Menard has lost 17 points to Bowman in the last four races and is now 72 points behind. He’s toast, right? He’s won at Indianapolis.
Suarez is 89 points behind Bowman, but he’s jumped to this part of the chart after his second-place finish at Pocono showed he has a chance for a win if everything falls his way.
Newman has barely gained ground on Bowman the last four weeks. Of these four biggest threats, he’s the only one with more than two Cup wins.
Byron is 21st in points. He needs to win. A month ago, Hendrick Motorsports didn’t look ready to win. Now it does. He has a shot. But it’s a long shot.
Repeating from the last posting of this breakdown a month ago — Could McMurray win? He probably has the best shot among those in this section, but it will take a perfect day in a season where nothing has gone perfect.