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April 17, 2024

Talladega Turning Point: Chase Elliott back in championship picture, superspeedway shuffle looming?

chase elliott greets fans

Here’s what’s happening in the world of NASCAR with Texas in the rearview and Talladega (Sun., 3 p.m. ET, FOX) right around the corner.


1️⃣ Elliott back to winning — but is he a title favorite?

2️⃣ Playoff spot up for grabs at wide-open ‘Dega

3️⃣ Who could squeeze their way into the playoff picture?

4️⃣ Guess who’s due in Alabama?

5️⃣ Catch the pack — news and notes from around the garage

chase elliott celebrates at texas
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1. Chase Elliott is back to winning — but is he a title favorite?

Now that the 2020 champion is free of a heavy 42-race winless streak and a playoff spot is in hand, it’s time to assess his championship hopes.

It felt like 420 races, didn’t it?

Forty-two-race winless streaks aren’t the most remarkable of droughts — plenty of drivers capable of winning in bunches have gone a season or more without a return to Victory Lane — but the way Elliott’s past two years have played out only served to highlight the drudgery of No. 9’s quest to snap the skid.

Well, he finally did.

Now Elliott’s got a provisional playoff spot after missing the postseason for the first time in his career eight months ago, a full head of steam and a championship-quality cast surrounding him. With the dominance we’ve seen from a handful of drivers apparently destined for a Championship 4 date themselves (Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson and rival Denny Hamlin, in particular) where, exactly, does the 2020 champ fit into this year’s title picture?

Honestly, he was already firmly entrenched in it even before Texas.

STACKING PENNIES: No. 9 team back in its stride?

While everyone was focused on the zero in the win column, Elliott was quietly putting the pieces together for what could wind up being his best season to date. The 19-time Cup Series winner has been a fixture among the cars at the front of the field nearly the entire campaign so far, landing in the top four in most laps run inside the top five and top 10 this season and turning in the second-best average finish (10.33) among full-timers this year. He’s absolutely on fire right now, with all four of his top-10 finishes coming in the last five races — the last three of which were all top fives for his longest top-five streak since last summer.

What was remarkable during the drought was the chatter and the questioning. Plenty asked the questions-did Elliott lose anything off the ol’ fastball from his snowboarding accident? Does Hendrick need to make a change atop the pit box and break up the dynamic duo of him and Alan Gustafson? Is this now Byron and Larson’s team?

No, no and no.

How quickly some forget just how exceptional of a talent Hendrick Motorsports’ longest-tenured driver is, and despite the slump he’s still, in a way, wiping the floor with everybody. Get ready for this — Elliott, a driver who missed last year’s playoffs amidst arguably his worst career season … still owns the best average finish (12.45) of any driver in the Next Gen era.

Couple that with the fact that his 13 most recent wins all came at different tracks (one of which is the site of this weekend’s race) and now that he’s kicked the streak to the curb, he’s likely to pile on plenty more in the coming months.

Elliott’s championship chase is officially on and in full force.

Giddy up.

chase elliott at texas
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2. Playoff spots up for grabs at wide-open ‘Dega

The 2024 postseason field is taking shape already and drivers need to maximize every remaining opportunity as more spots dry up.

Part of the somewhat under-discussed fallout from Elliott’s massive Texas win? That’s one more playoff spot off the board.

“But Pat,” you say. “It’s Chase Elliott — we expected him to make the playoffs. Plus, it’s April.

Indeed. But he didn’t last year. Nor did Atlanta winner Daniel Suárez. And one of last year’s postseason competitors (Kevin Harvick) will be watching this year’s playoff drivers sweat it out while he’s sitting comfortably on his couch.

That’s at least three spots of turnover in the playoff field we’re tentatively going to see. And perhaps more.

Enter Talladega Superspeedway.

Perhaps the track most notorious for unexpected winners, the Alabama track could easily offer up another surprise playoff entrant this weekend and really shuffle the deck.

According to Racing Insights, 86% of the playoff field has been set, on average, after the ninth race in the past seven years, which was Texas this season; Talladega being the 10th.

Based on that trend, there are essentially just two remaining spots up for grabs at the moment from drivers not currently in. Even if it is April.

And naturally, there’s almost no possible way to predict who might emerge this weekend — seven different drivers have won the last seven ‘Dega races.

There are a lot of eyes on Ford and Brad Keselowski — a six-time Talladega winner — to make the first big strike for the blue ovals this season, and his former Team Penske teammates all join him as formidable options to break through for their first 2024 wins as well, all being past superspeedway winners. Ford itself, for all of its noted struggles this season, might be the manufacturer to beat on Sunday as the unquestioned best at drafting tracks in recent years.

Talladega is anybody’s ballgame, but Toyota has not won a race on a drafting track in the Next Gen car, with the last win for the manufacturer on this track type coming via Bubba Wallace there in October 2021, 14 drafting races ago. Thankfully for Toyota, all Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing cars are in the tentative playoff field already, so an off weekend can be afforded should it happen. And actually, if Toyota was to buck the trend, it may come at the hands of Legacy Motor Club’s Erik Jones, who compiled a sparkling 8.71 average finish in the seven Talladega races prior to last fall’s P26 in his final superspeedway race for Chevy.

Then again, let’s go full circle here.

It’s extremely possible Elliott just goes back-to-back, as Talladega stands as one of his best tracks with two wins and top 10s in half of his 16 starts. No. 9 finished in the top 10 in three of the last four in Alabama and, oh yeah — his last win before the streak?

Talladega, fall 2022.

cars race at talladega
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3. Who could squeeze their way into the playoff picture?

NBC’s Steve Letarte and MRN’s Todd Gordon break down expectations for when NASCAR hits the high banks at Talladega on Sunday.

4. Guess who’s due in Alabama?

This year’s Daytona 500 winner might make it two in a row at superspeedways, as William Byron has been close to his first ‘Dega win with two runner-ups in the past six races.

Most laps led at Talladega laps without a win

DriverLaps LedCareer wins
Kurt Busch29234
Benny Parsons25321
Geoff Bodine17818
Jeff Burton15821
Greg Biffle15519
Elliott Sadler1263
Morgan Shepherd1224
Rusty Wallace12055
William Byron10813
Jim Vandiver1030

5. Catch the pack — news and notes from around the garage

Power Rankings: Brad Keselowski next champ to snap winless streak?

Paint Scheme Preview: See the schemes for Talladega

William Byron on Texas tangle with Chastain: ‘We’ll discuss it and go from there’

@nascarcasm: Nine things you may not know about Chase Elliott

Analysis: Chase Elliott’s victory highlights journey back to top of mountain

NASCAR Inside The Race: How scoring lines factored into Chase Elliott’s Texas win

Fans fired up about Tyler Reddick’s No. 45 Jordan Brand paint scheme

Kyle Petty on impact of Elliott’s victory: ‘The sport needs him to win’

@nascarcasm: Fake texts to Texas winner Chase Elliott

Which driver is favored to win 2024 title after Texas?

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