NASCAR elimination scenarios: What each driver needs to advance at Charlotte
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Chase Elliott will be a favorite this Sunday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course, considering that he won there in 2019 and '20.
In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising for Elliott to view Charlotte as one of his favorite races of the year. That’s because, thanks to his win Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, he has advanced to the Round of 8, the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs. He enters this weekend's race with no pressure.
The remaining 11 championship-eligible drivers will try to avoid being eliminated Sunday. A win earns an automatic berth in the next round, and the four drivers winless in the round with the fewest points will be eliminated from championship contention.
"It should be a fun day," said Austin Cindric, who is currently tied for the last spot above the cutoff. "A lot of unknowns going into that race. That race is very, very tough on cars, tough on equipment, tough on drivers. And those tracks haven’t been very forgiving to the field this year.
"[You] keep that in mind and try to have some speed."
NASCAR awards points to the top 10 on a 10-to-1 scale after each of the first two stages, so a driver who is 35 points ahead of eighth in the standings after the second stage would clinch a spot in the next round.
Drivers get points on a 35-to-1 scale for race-finishing positions second to 36th, so heading into the final stage, drivers will have an idea of where they need to finish (or where they need to finish in relation to other playoff drivers).
Here are the clinching scenarios for drivers as they enter the race at "The Roval," a 17-turn, 2.32-mile road course and the sixth road course race of the Next Gen car era, following regular-season events at Circuit of the Americas (Austin), Sonoma, Road America (Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin), Indianapolis and Watkins Glen.
STAY ON TRACK: If these drivers finish in the top 20, they should advance.
Ryan Blaney (+32 on the drivers tied for eighth/ninth): Blaney clinches with 23 points, which would be a 14th and no stage points no matter what anyone else does. He won the inaugural Charlotte Roval race in 2018 and has not finished outside the top 10 in his four starts at the track. The Team Penske driver has two top-10s on road courses in the Next Gen car. Blaney probably doesn’t want to look at stats; his elimination races have been full of drama, and he might be wondering what else could go wrong to make him sweat.
Ross Chastain (+28): Chastain clinches with 28 points, which would be a ninth-place finish and no stage points no matter what anyone else does. He won at COTA and was seventh at Sonoma and fourth at Road America, so the Trackhouse cars have speed on road courses. Chastain's previous two road-course races haven’t gone as well — who can forget his move at the end of Indianapolis, where he was given a timed penalty for cutting the course? — but he should be OK.
Denny Hamlin (+21): Hamlin clinches with 35 points, which would be a second-place finish and no stage points no matter what anyone else does. He has just one win in 44 career road-course starts, but he doesn’t need to win and most likely won’t need to finish second. He has 19 career top-10s, and that likely would be good enough. The problem? The Toyotas and Joe Gibbs Racing have struggled on road courses, and Hamlin doesn’t have a top-10 on a road course this year.
STAY NEAR FRONT: If these drivers earn some stage points and finish top-15 or so, they should be fine.
Joey Logano (+18): Logano clinches with 38 points no matter what anyone else does. The Team Penske driver will have to put the disappointment of Talladega, where he stayed in the back thinking there would be a big crash, behind him. That should be easy to do because Logano ran well on the previous two road courses, finishing sixth at Indianapolis and third at Watkins Glen.
Kyle Larson (+18): Larson, who won on the Charlotte road course during his 2021 Cup championship season, clinches with 38 points no matter what anyone else does. He has four career road-course wins, including winning the most recent road-course race at Watkins Glen. He also was third at Road America. The Hendrick driver just can’t make any mistakes, as he did at Indianapolis, where he misjudged a corner and crashed hard into Ty Dillon.
Daniel Suarez (+12): Suarez clinches with 44 points no matter what anyone else does. He earned his first career victory earlier this year at Sonoma and was fifth at Road America and fifth at Watkins Glen. He enters this race on the bubble but with confidence that his Trackhouse Racing team has good cars for road courses.
TAKE CHANCES: These drivers are going to have to make moves. They're in position to do more taking than giving and pay off the favors sometime in the future.
Chase Briscoe (tied for eighth): Briscoe doesn't have a top-five but has three top-10s in 12 career road-course starts. His top road-course finish this year is 13th, and he has three finishes outside the top-20. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver needs to find a way to be stronger on road courses and might need some others to struggle Sunday.
Austin Cindric (tied for eighth): Cindric has roots in road racing, having started in the top-10 in six of his eight Cup road-course starts, with two top-5 finishes and five top-10s. He was second at Indianapolis and fifth at Sonoma. The key for the Team Penske rookie (and the others in this tier) will be qualifying well to set himself up for stage points in the opening stage.
William Byron (-11 from eighth): Byron has no top-5s and six top-10s in 20 career road-course starts. One of those top-10s was a ninth at Sonoma earlier this year, his only top-15 finish on a road course this season. Byron’s biggest moment of the week could be Thursday, when the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of his 25-point penalty for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas will be heard. If Byron gets any of those points back, he’ll have a much better chance to advance.
MUST WIN: These two drivers don’t need to look at points. They need to win.
Christopher Bell (-33): If Bell earns some stage points and Briscoe and Cindric have trouble, Bell might not need to win. But he probably has a better chance of winning than of things falling into place for him to make it on points. Bell won on the Daytona road course last year and has three top-5s in 14 starts on road courses. The JGR driver was third at Circuit of the Americas this year and eighth at Watkins Glen.
Alex Bowman (-54): If Bowman returns from a concussion (he missed the Talladega race), he faces a must-win situation. Mathematically, he could sweep the stages and finish second in the race, but he'd still need both Briscoe and Cindric to finish 35th or worse. In other words, Bowman needs to win. He has only three top-5s in 24 career starts on road courses. The Hendrick driver did finish second in the first road-course race of the season but has not been in contention at any road courses since then.
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.