Chase Elliott’s Biggest Threat to Defending His NASCAR Cup Series Crown Isn’t Kyle Larson but His Own Team

Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott is going in the wrong direction, and we don’t mean he’s suddenly driving clockwise on the ovals. The regular season is down to the road course at Indianapolis and 400-milers at Michigan International and Daytona. Elliott heads there on the heels of losing ground to recklessness, not wrecks.

Chase Elliott’s biggest threat comes from his own team

Chase Elliott exits the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevy after a second-place showing at the NASCAR Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International on Aug. 8, 2021. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Chase Elliott exits the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevy after a second-place showing at the NASCAR Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International on Aug. 8, 2021. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Elliott’s second-place finish last week on the road course at Watkins Glen qualified as some of the best driving done in the NASCAR Cup Series this season.

Elliott, a two-time winner at the Glen, was going to have work to do under any circumstances because he was supposed to start from the 11th position on a track that isn’t especially passing-friendly. The situation grew worse Sunday when NASCAR failed his car at the pre-race inspection over the rear window air deflector. The result was a triple crown of bad news:

  • NASCAR sent Elliott to the back of the field for the start of the race.
  • Crew chief Alan Gustafson served a mandatory suspension, taking him off the team’s box in the pits.
  • NASCAR docked Elliott 10 points in the standings.

After working through the field all afternoon, Elliott needed too much time getting around lapped traffic and Martin Truex Jr. late in the race and couldn’t catch Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson for the checkered flag.

There is no sure thing in racing, but it’s not a reach to suggest Elliott could have won the race and even picked up stage points had he started from the 11th position as originally scheduled. The fact that he didn’t win was on the team, not the driver. And it continued a disturbing trend.

The No. 9 Chevy team is handing back points almost as quickly as Elliott can accumulate them.

Chase Elliott has lost 72 points to penalties in the NASCAR Cup Series

Elliott has won twice this season and is comfortably in the playoffs beginning at Darlington on Sept. 5. But he’s losing valuable points on his way.

Larson and Denny Hamlin stand tied for first with 917 points, with William Byron third at 786. Elliott is sixth (749 points) and trying to hold off Truex (740). He would be a comfortable third at the moment if not for:

  • Five loose lug nuts at Nashville in June cost him 37 of the 38 points he earned that day plus a stage point applicable to the playoffs.
  • The crew failed to put the proper sealed engine in the No. 9 car last month at New Hampshire, triggering a 25-point penalty.
  • The 10-point penalty at Watkins Glen brought the total to 72 docked points.

Those 72 points are the difference between third and sixth place in the standings. It’s also the difference between eight playoff points and five. Throw in the penalty from Nashville, and Elliott could roll into Darlington with four fewer playoff points than he should have.

That’s a formula for losing his shot at successfully defending the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

The points situation is worse than it appears at first glance

The 72 points are a cold, hard fact. But NBC Sports notes that Elliott has started from the back of the field five times this season for a variety of issues. He has consistently fought back into contention to pick up valuable points in each instance. But how many more stage points would Elliott be sitting on if he had started higher in the grid?

Having every available point in hand is no small matter. A year ago, he finished the ninth stop in the 10-race playoff with a victory at Martinsville that automatically advanced Elliott to the Championship 4. Had he not won, Elliott would have finished five points behind Kevin Harvick for that final berth.

If Elliott hasn’t already done so, it’s time for him to call a meeting to tell the team the mistakes have to stop before there’s any additional damage.

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