CONCORD, N.C. – With one race remaining in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series regular season and one spot up for grabs in the playoffs, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman are each facing a must-win situation at Daytona International Speedway.
"I think we've felt like we've needed a win for a few weeks, so I think that you always race to win," team vice chairman Jeff Gordon said. "It doesn't really change your mindset. It just puts a little bit more pressure because of what is at stake, but I also know that they can certainly win there."
Elliott has three wins on drafting tracks – two at Talladega Superspeedway and one at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Two of those wins came last year in the Next Gen car and he is tied with teammate William Byron for the most drafting track wins in the Next Gen era. The 27-year-old driver has two runner-up finishes at Daytona, with one of those coming in the 2020 summer race.
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In the owner championship battle, Elliott’s No. 9 team holds the final spot in the provisional field, with a 30-point advantage over the No. 23 team. Should any of the 13 full-time teams with wins already this season or the Nos. 4 or 6 entries (the two teams locked in the playoffs on points) win at Daytona, the No. 9 would need to be outscored by 31 points to not reach the owner playoffs. With three runner-up finishes in 2023, the Hendrick Motorsports team holds the tiebreaker to make the field. If there is a new winner among the full-time teams, the No. 9 would not make the owner’s championship.
Elliott missed six races in the spring with a fractured tibia and also missed the race at Gateway due to a NASCAR suspension.
"It’s been a different year. Not one that I would like to do over," Elliott said. "Definitely a lot of lessons learned and I think there will be something good to come from this on the backend and in seasons to come.
"Looking forward to this weekend. Hopefully, we can get in the show. Worst case, try to get the 9 car in the owner championship and make a run at that."
Bowman earned his best result at Daytona in this year’s DAYTONA 500 in February. He started from the pole position for the third time in his career and earned a fifth-place finish. The driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 became the first polesitter since 2001 to finish in the top five in that race. His best superspeedway result to date was at Talladega in April 2019, when he finished second to Elliott. After starting 2023 with six top-10 finishes in the opening seven races, Bowman missed three points-paying events and the All-Star Race with a fractured vertebra.
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"Obviously, this situation is not ideal, but we have one option – win," Bowman said. "I have mixed feelings because normally, I feel like I draft well with the No. 9 car and Chase Elliott, but this weekend, I have to beat him. We have a great team, a great pit crew, and as long as we can stay out of the big one, there is no reason we can’t go compete for a win this Saturday and grab the last playoff spot."
The high banks of Daytona are unpredictable. This race has a penchant for producing first-time winners in a season. In four of the last five years, a driver has earned their first victory of the season in the Daytona summer race (Erik Jones in 2018, Justin Haley in 2019, Byron in 2020 and Austin Dillon in 2022).
In two of those instances, the victory helped catapult a driver into the postseason. Last year, Dillon won to earn a spot in the playoff field. In 2020, following stage two, Byron needed to finish eight spots better than Jimmie Johnson and he went on to score his first Cup Series win. Byron’s victory is one of two occasions in team history where a Hendrick Motorsports driver raced their way into the postseason in the final regular season race. In 2012, Gordon, who entered that year’s regular-season finale 13th in points, earned a wild card slot following his second-place finish at Richmond Raceway. Who was Gordon's crew chief in 2012? Alan Gustafson, who leads the No. 9 team of Elliott.
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Coming off his fifth win of the season at Watkins Glen International, Byron is keenly aware of how big a role teammates play in superspeedway racing.
"Try to help those guys as much as we can," Byron said of the approach going into Daytona concerning Elliott and Bowman sitting outside of the playoffs. "Superspeedways are the place that we can help the most.
"Superspeedways is a chance -- everyone is really close there. Hopefully, we can push those guys when we need to. I intend on being aggressive there and just making sure all my belts are tight and make sure we're ready to go."
Tune in to watch the regular season’s final race from Daytona on Saturday, Aug. 26, at 7 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).