DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman bumped fists on pit road after Saturday’s regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. Their Chevrolets had been parked nose-to-tail at the front of the post-race queue, but neither Hendrick Motorsports car was leading that line when it counted at the checkered flag.
Elliott finished fourth and Bowman wound up sixth in Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400, each coming up just a handful of positions short of the needed victory that would have clinched the final berth in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. Neither one could break through the flotilla of Ford drivers at the front of the pack down the stretch, and both drivers missed out on racing for the title for the first time in their Hendrick careers.
Elliott, who missed seven regular-season races because of a combination of injury and suspension, at least took some solace in his No. 9 Chevrolet group qualifying for the Cup Series team owners championship. That separate title hunt will also play out during the next 10 races that close the 2023 season.
“I mean, look, it sucks, no question,” Elliott said. “But I’m glad the car got in. It’s a big deal and testament to Alan (Gustafson, his crew chief) and our team for just continuing to fight and whatnot while I was gone. You know, that there’s a lot of opportunity on that side of things, and it’s a really big deal. So we’d like to go and make some noise on that front. You know, it certainly isn’t ideal for me, but I look at these next 10 weeks as an opportunity to get better and really try to be prepared for next year.
“So I hate it. I hate the way that this worked out. I can’t change it now. We’ve been trying to fight through it, and we came up short. So that’s life sometimes. So I do think we’ll be better for this on the other end somewhere.”
Elliott and Bowman both made their final pit stops on Lap 146 of a scheduled 160, making quick work of their fuel-only service and gaining ground in the lead pack. When a caution period for Ryan Preece’s late-race flip on the back straightaway pushed the race for overtime, the two drivers chose the inside lane in line with each other — Elliott on Row 2 and Bowman behind him.
Elliott’s primary drafting partner ended up being Ford driver Kevin Harvick, a former rival in the final Daytona start of his career. But Elliott said he wasn’t able to stay locked on the bumper of Harvick’s No. 4 to use the aerodynamic draft to greater effect.
Elliott and Bowman both lamented that they were unable to work the draft as well as Ford teammates Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski, who controlled the pack up front and went 1-2 for RFK Racing.
“As far as tonight goes, we put ourselves in position and we did all the right things and we had a short last pit stop, which is what matters at speedway races and we were in contention, but then it just didn’t work out for us,” said Bowman, who also missed time during the regular season, sidelined for three points events and the All-Star Race as he recovered from injuries in a sprint-car crash. “You know, a lot of things happened this season, some way outside of my control and some that I do control myself and they all added up to missing it. The biggest thing is sitting on the couch for four weeks and that was my fault. So that’s on me, and (I’ve) got 10 more weeks to make it up to this Ally 48 team.”
Bowman had made the 16-driver field each year since landing a full-time role with Hendrick Motorsports starting in 2018. Elliott’s snapped streak was longer, ending a seven-year run that included Championship 4 appearances in three consecutive seasons and the 2020 Cup Series title.
The disruption to the No. 9 team’s plans for the season came after just two races when Elliott’s leg injury suffered in a snowboarding accident sidelined him for six events. A suspension for rough driving in the Coca-Cola 600 in May threw another hitch into the rhythm.
“I think they went through a lot this year,” said Jeff Andrews, Hendrick Motorsports team president and general manager. “If you look at what happened earlier in the year with Chase’s injury, and those kinds of things have a big effect on the team and the sync of the team. I’m proud of Alan and his guys. I mean, they fought through an awful lot this year. So we’ve got 10 races to go, and we’re gonna go try to win some races with both of those cars, the 48 and the 9.”
The evening’s outcome marked the second straight year that at least one high-profile driver missed out on the 16-driver postseason field. Last season, it was Martin Truex Jr., who made quite the turnaround in 2023 to capture the Regular-Season Championship.
Truex made sure that the defeat wasn’t an unshakeable burden, something Elliott aims to replicate next season.
“It doesn’t define me, so I think it’s a great point, and that’s reality,” Elliott said. “You know, narratives can change really fast, and that’s sports in general. The people who have the ability to change narratives really fast are the people that are better at controlling their own destiny, and that’s drivers and teams and crew members and everybody that plays a part in our race team. So yeah, look, like I said, it’s a bummer. I hate it. I would love to have a shot at a championship this year, but that’s not the way it unfolded, and that’s life. So all I can do from here is just try to be better for it down the road, and I intend to do that.”
Bowman’s succinct assessment of the team’s goals for the next 10 races included what he hopes is some foreshadowing for the 2024 season.
“We’ve just gotta execute like we’re in it, because we’re gonna be in it next year,” Bowman said. “We need to act like we are and learn all we can and try to go win races.”