Chase Elliott’s best shot at making the NASCAR playoffs appears to be now, at Watkins Glen. And he’s the favorite.
The 2020 Cup Series champion has two wins at the 14-turn road course in upstate New York. He also has seven career victories on NASCAR’s winding tracks, two more than any other active driver.
Elliott and 35 others will take to the 2.45-mile, multi-elevational track Sunday for the series’ penultimate regular-season event. Thirteen drivers have clinched berths in the 16-driver postseason field, including former series champs Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.
Two more past champions, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, have solid holds on two of the remaining three playoff spots. Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suàrez are on the bubble and need a victory or help. Wallace leads Suàrez by 28 points.
“We just need to keep doing what we are doing,” Suárez said. “That’s qualify well and earn stage points and get a good finish. There is still a lot of racing left and we know we can do this.”
Elliott’s path is clearer: he must win to make the postseason for the eighth consecutive year. The Hendrick Motorsports star has two races remaining to get it done: in New York or next week at always-unpredictable Daytona International Speedway.
“Certainly don’t want to have yourself in a position to have to win at Daytona, but that’s a possibility at this point,” Elliott said. “I feel way better about going to Watkins Glen than I do Daytona because there is more in my control going there versus a plate race.”
NASCAR’s most popular driver missed six races early in the season after breaking his left leg snowboarding and was suspended for another. Those absences have him 19th in points, 80 behind the playoff cutline.
No one would be surprised to see him eke out a spot at the Glen.
Elliott finished in the top five in each of three road-course races he entered this season. He was fifth at Sonoma Raceway, third on the streets of Chicago and runner-up last week at Indianapolis. The Dawsonville, Georgia, native has the best average finish in those events.
Adding to his confidence, his first Cup Series win came at the serpentine track in New York’s Finger Lakes region.
“It will always be special because of that,” Elliott said. “That was a day I will certainly never forget as a huge achievement in my career and a huge achievement for our team. We had been through some tough losses together and had a lot of really close calls. To finally get over the hump there was a really big deal.”
If Truex scores 56 or more points at the Glen, he would automatically clinch the title. The New Jersey native increased his points cushion over Denny Hamlin to 60 points following last week’s race at Indianapolis.
“For us, it’s business as usual, and these races are all important,” Truex said.
Elliott is the betting favorite (plus-350 or 3.5-to-1) to win Sunday, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Hendrick teammate Larson (plus-500 or 5-1) is the second choice. Larson has won the last two races at Watkins Glen and will try to join Hall of Famers Mark Martin (1993-95) and Jeff Gordon (1997-99) as the only drivers to win three straight there.
The Glen is the fifth of six road courses on the 2023 Cup schedule. There have been four winners in as many races so far: Tyler Reddick (Circuit of The Americas), Truex (Sonoma), Shane van Gisbergen (Chicago) and Michael McDowell (Indianapolis).
The next road course to navigate comes in the second round of the playoffs at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval in October.