Based on his regular-season performance, Chase Elliott would seem to be the top candidate for championship front runner.
- Elliott won four races in the regular season when no one else won more than two.
- He had 17 top-10 finishes after 26 races. His closest competitors, Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell, each had only 14.
- Along with Chastain and Kyle Larson, Elliott tied for most top-five finishes with 10.
- Not only did he put together a streak of six top 10s in a row, it started just three weeks after a streak of five top 10s in a row ended.
- He won the regular-season championship.
Elliott led the points coming into the playoffs and again entering round two. He retains the lead spot going into the Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC). He will almost certainly make the championship four.
But making it to Phoenix and being most likely to win there are two very different things.
To weigh race performance against playoff points, I separated first-round points into:
- Race points (blue)
- Stage points (green)
- Playoff points earned during the regular season (yellow)
- Playoff points earned for finishing in the regular-season top-10 (red)
Elliott started as the first seed but finished the round in fourth place.
Bell dominated. He was the only driver to get top fives in all three races. He beat the second-place driver, William Byron, by 22 points.
Bell’s 99 race points beat Byron by five and Denny Hamlin by one. But Bell tallied 50 stage points relative to Byron’s 30 and Hamlin’s 14.
Elliott earned just 62 race points and 18 stage points in the first three playoff races. That’s fewer than the three drivers ahead of him (Bell, Byron and Hamlin) and the two after him (Chastain and Larson).
Elliott’s saving grace was the 40 playoff points he earned during the regular season — 25 from race and stage wins, plus 15 for finishing first in the regular season. Without those playoff points, Elliott would have ended round one ranked between Chase Briscoe and Daniel Suárez.
A brief aside on the importance of stage points: Kyle Busch missed moving on by two points. Despite having the fewest race points, Busch’s 36 stage points almost got him to round two.
That’s how tight these playoffs are.
Alex Bowman is not represented in the graph below because he will miss the Roval due to continued concussion symptoms. He will be eliminated from the playoffs, along with the three lowest-scoring drivers after this week’s elimination race.
Although Bell finished first in round one, he started round two in seventh after re-seeding. His playoffs went downhill from there. After winning round one by 22 points, Bell is now in a win-or-be-eliminated situation.
Unless, of course, enough drivers ahead of him have major troubles at the Roval.
Despite tire problems that led to a DNF at Texas, Elliott enters the elimination race with 103 total points. That’s two more than Ryan Blaney and six more than Chastain.
But if you consider only race finishes — and that’s what matters in Phoenix — Elliott ties Joey Logano with 45 points. The two beat only Bell in race points in round two. Elliott would be in 10th place without the playoff-point buffer.
Defining the championship frontrunner
In my mind, being frontrunner requires demonstrating dominance. Last year, Larson came into the final race of the season having won four of the nine playoff races. Elliott has a win, a P2, a P11 and three races of 29th or worse in his last six races.
To be fair, no one else has dominated, either. With the first four races won by non-playoff drivers, Elliott’s contenders missed a big chance to erode his playoff-points buffer.
I hear you thinking, “None of that matters at Phoenix. Elliott led 50 laps in the spring race. And the tires are the same as New Hampshire and the fall Richmond race, and he finished top five in both.”
You’re right. Elliott did run well at Phoenix in the spring. Until he spun out from seventh place eight laps from the finish.
Given how much teams have learned about the Next Gen car, I hesitate to weigh performance at the start of the season too heavily. And benefits like running a familiar set of tires help every team. Elliott’s likely competitor Hamlin ran fourth at the fall Richmond race (compared to Elliott’s fifth) and sixth at the Loudon race, where Elliott finished second.
I’m not ready to crown Elliott frontrunner, but neither am I ready to crown anyone else.
Depending on how the next four races play out, there may not be a clear frontrunner going into Phoenix.
And that would only make the final race even more exciting.