Chase Elliott enters the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs a step ahead of the competition as the No. 1 seed and regular season champion. But Elliott isn’t breathing any easier going into the opening race Sunday (6 p.m. ET, USA) at Darlington Raceway.
“I feel like we’re in a good place,” Elliott said. “I think we could be better, but I think we’re in a solid spot — and in a position where we’ve learned some good lessons, too, that we can apply going forward.”
Elliott has a series-leading four wins and 40 playoff points as the top seed. Elliott and the No. 9 team from Hendrick Motorsports won the championship in 2020 and finished fourth in their title defense a year ago. If there is a favorite for the championship, for some, the list begins with Elliott.
Except when it comes to the driver.
“I don’t think there is [a favorite],” Elliott said. “For me, there’s never a good answer. But I try to just give you my honest take on it, and you can take that and do what you want, I guess. There have been too many people good at different times.
“Just because we have a win more than other people doesn’t mean other people aren’t capable of winning or having a really good day, too. You’ve got to respect the whole field, in my opinion. There’s a lot of really talented drivers and a lot of really smart people working at these teams.”
There is no denying, however that playoff points are invaluable. Since they were introduced in 2017, drivers have used them to their advantage in advancing or having some insurance to fall back on if things go haywire in a round.
Elliott is in an unfamiliar — but nice — spot holding 40 playoff points, the most he’s ever entered the postseason with. Last year Elliott had 21, which had been his previous high. The year he won the championship, he started with 20 playoff points.
“We’ve talked about that a lot,” Elliott said. “We’ve been never in that position before and that’s a good thing. I’d love to put ourselves in that position more often year after year — it means we’d probably have more fun that year. You’re just trying to help hedge your bet. Nothing is guaranteed, but it can certainly help and I think that’s the big one. We just want to try to hedge that bet and better your odds as much as possible, and that does that.”
Those points may be there for Elliott but they’re not something that makes him comfortable.
“I honestly don’t believe anybody is safe at any point in time,” he said. “The way this format is, I think you have to respect this format from week one all the way to week 10. I don’t think there is ever a period of time where you should think anything is taken for granted, and I don’t think any amount of playoff points is ever safe.
“The rounds are so short. You can have two bad weeks back to back and you do nothing wrong, and the next thing you know, you’re in a position where you have to win the last one. And that could happen to the guy that’s first in points or the guy that’s last. I don’t think anyone is safe from that.”
If things go according to plan and Elliott doesn’t encounter trouble, the first round sets up nicely for him to continue to add to his standing. Darlington, Kansas, and Bristol are all tracks Elliott has run well at before, and that two of the three teams have some notes on with the Next Gen having been there earlier this year.
But the first elimination race, Bristol, is an unknown. Bristol was covered in dirt earlier this year, and every playoff team will be on a level playing field, not knowing what to expect when it’s time to make the first cuts.
“That one is really interesting, in my opinion, and I’m excited to get to Bristol,” Elliott said. “I think it’s a really iconic event on our schedule. That fall Bristol night race is one that I always looked forward to going to and watching. And since I’ve been a part of them, they’re even cooler. I’m excited about that and getting there. Hopefully, we hit it right and guess right, because it is going to be a bit of a guess, I think, for everybody.”