CONCORD, N.C. – Chase Elliott and the No. 9 team did not have the start to the Round of 8 that the group was hoping for in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series owner playoffs.
An incident in practice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was an ominous sign ahead of a 32nd-place result in the race. The team is now 61 points below the elimination line and eighth in the owner standings at 4,007 points.
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The Vegas result snapped a string of six top-10 finishes in the past seven races, with the team’s lone finish outside the top 10 being an 11th-place result at Texas Motor Speedway. Elliott had found a good rhythm in the opening six races of the owner’s playoffs as he was tied for the second-most top 10s (five) and points (226) and was second in average finish (8.00).
"We’ve been happy with our improvement and certainly, trying to get to victory lane is a big deal and making it through these rounds," crew chief Alan Gustafson told MRN's Crew Call this week. "Unfortunately, in this business, you are only as good as your last week and we had a terrible last week, so you feel bad about that. Overall, through the playoffs, the performance has been on an uptick."
With where the team is positioned on points in the owner standings, a win is likely needed to advance Elliott and the No. 9 team to the Championship 4 on the owner’s side. The first shot at that will come at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, Oct. 22 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBC Sports App, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio—Channel 90). The South Florida track is known for having huge tire fall off and that gives it some similar characteristics to Darlington Raceway and Auto Club Speedway. In this year’s three races at those tracks, Elliott finished second (at Auto Club), third (at Darlington in May) and eighth (in the Darlington playoff race).
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Homestead-Miami stands as Elliott’s best 1.5-mile track on the current schedule with a 9.71 average finish. That mark is also the third-best among active drivers. In seven starts, the 27-year-old driver has two top-five finishes and three top-10s. His best result came in the spring 2020 race where he finished second. Over 18 starts, Gustafson has a win atop the pit box at Homestead-Miami. He won at this track with Jeff Gordon in 2012.
"Chase (Elliott) is good at these next two tracks (Homestead-Miami and Martinsville Speedway) and if we can get him through these two into the final in Phoenix, he’s won that one before," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "I like the way that team has come back and rebounded. Nobody waits for you when you are out and the crew chief and driver aren’t able to work together. Other teams move on and so they had to play catch up. Now, I feel like they are there."
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The No. 9 team is one of three in the organization, along with the Nos. 5 and 24 teams, which are still in the owner championship battle. This carries a huge amount of importance to teams as the owner championship is where the payout to teams is determined. With Kyle Larson’s win at Las Vegas, both he and the No. 5 team are locked into the Championship 4 on the driver and owner’s side of things. As one car has already punched its ticket to Phoenix, the organization is focused on helping the rest of the eligible teams reach that height as well.
"The teamwork and the cohesiveness as an organization – I’ve been here a long time – has never been as good as it is now," Gustafson said. "I think that shows in the performance and certainly, everybody is super excited about getting Kyle (Larson) in. It’s a great thing for all of us and it gives us an opportunity to focus on getting the 24 (William Byron) in and getting us in on the owners.
"We are super fortunate here that there is not a week where we are not racing to win or to win a championship or some very significant record. I feel super fortunate to be a part of that and it is an amazing thing to work at a place that Mr. Hendrick sets the tone for. We have a great amount of people who want to work together to accomplish great things."