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NASCAR came down hard on Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe on consecutive days, and it needed to be done. The penalties the governing bodies assessed will have the intended effect of discouraging future bad behavior by them or others.

Unfortunately, NASCAR may unwittingly endanger everyone by forcing Elliott and Briscoe into must-win situations in order to make the playoffs.

Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe feel NASCAR’s wrath

Racing fans on social media called it almost immediately when Chase Elliott wrecked Denny Hamlin early in the Coca-Cola 600 on Monday. For an instant, it looked as though perhaps Brad Keselowski launched Elliott’s No. 9 Chevy into Hamlin.

After a look at the replay, however, it was apparent the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion didn’t get any help making the abrupt left turn that right-rear-hooked the No. 18 Toyota. Fans clamored for a suspension, and NASCAR concurred the following day by parking Elliott for the Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway.

On Wednesday, it was Chase Briscoe’s turn to feel the wrath as the result of his car being impounded at Charlotte for a closer look in the R&D center. NASCAR penalized Briscoe 120 championship and 25 playoff points for a counterfeit part. Stewart-Haas Racing was docked the same number of owner points, and crew chief John Klausmeier was fined $250,000 and suspended for six races.

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior VP of competition, said the inspection uncovered a counterfeit engine NACA duct, which is supposed to be a single-source part. SHR announced shortly afterward that it will not appeal the L3 penalty.

Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe are in must-win situations

The penalty NASCAR announced on Wednesday drops Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Ford team from 17th to 31st in the Cup Series standings, leaving him at 172 points. At 157 points out of 16th place and accounting for stage points, he’ll have to outrun guys like Bubba Wallace, Alex Bowman, and Ty Gibbs by around 14 places each week to make the playoffs unless he wins his way into the playoffs.

Chase Elliott faces a similar dilemma. He already missed six races while recovering from a broken leg, but Elliott was running so well since returning that it was plausible he could make the playoffs without winning. Now, he’s 81 points behind Bowman, who’s holding down 16th place after an injury issue of his own, and he will lose more ground by taking a bagel this week.

Elliott can make up some lost ground, but he’ll only have 11 races left to pass a dozen drivers in points. It’s the same situation golfers face going into the final round of a tournament: Being three shots off the lead doesn’t sound so imposing, but you can’t reasonably expect to pass all 12 competitors starting the day higher on the leaderboard; someone will throw a 70 on the board even if you shoot a 68.

Putting drivers in must-win situations can create danger

Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe await driver introductions at the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum on Feb. 5, 2023.
Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe await driver introductions at the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum on Feb. 5, 2023. | Araya Doheny/Getty Images

Chase Briscoe Confirms Hendrick Motorsports Is Just Like All the Rest in 1 Important Respect

To reiterate, NASCAR absolutely needed to penalize Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe. We can quibble with NASCAR’s consistency issues, but adhering to the rules is a must. Massive penalties drive that point home.

However, what we have now is a situation in which Elliott and Briscoe cannot behave like Ross Chastain or Kevin Harvick. Though winless, those two Cup Series stars sit first and fourth, respectively, in points. They can count on top-10 finishes to both qualify and also secure valuable playoff points awarded for the standings after the Daytona summer race.

Meanwhile, Elliott and Briscoe don’t have the luxury of focusing on points. If they’re running near the front with 20 laps to go, their mindset will be anything short of winning amounts to losing. That can mean making the high-risk moves Chastain has gained a reputation for attempting – often unsuccessfully and at the cost of wrecking others.

That adds risk to an already dangerous sport, so maybe NASCAR needs to reconsider how it handles penalties.

Instead of parking Elliott this week, would it be better to make him miss the first playoff race? On the downside, It’s not as significant a penalty if he doesn’t qualify for the playoffs. It also moves him closer to a must-win mentality at Kansas and Bristol if he does make the playoffs, so that might be no better as a solution.

As for Briscoe, NASCAR has already crushed his season. Even if he wins between now and Daytona, his playoff points penalty is insurmountable, and he’d have to win races to advance to subsequent rounds. That creates the same sort of unhealthy desperation that can lead to more than the usual late-race carnage.

Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected].