Chase Elliott entered the Darlington Raceway media center on Saturday afternoon with a NASCAR championship on his mind.
Just not the championship you think.
NASCAR’s most popular driver five years running officially missed the driver’s playoffs after failing to win in his last chance at Daytona last weekend. But by virtue of the No. 9 team being solid all season — even during Elliott’s six-week injured absence and one-week suspended absence this year — Elliott is in a position to help Hendrick Motorsports to a car owner championship.
HMS holds a series-best 14 car owner championships — and helping the team to another one is a responsibility Elliott doesn’t take lightly.
”If you’re not in the driver’s (playoff), it’s irrelevant to most of the outside public, right?” Elliott told reporters in the Darlington Raceway media center Saturday. “But that’s just not the case. So it’s a tough balance. I want to be better, I want to prepare better for next year and use some of these races to make myself better.
“But it’s not just a throwaway. We’re still racing for something.”
Competing for an owner’s championship but not in a driver’s championship is rare for the sport. Bubba Wallace did so last year after stepping into the No. 45 car after an injured Kurt Busch withdrew from the playoffs. (Similarly, also in 2022, Kyle Larson did not advance out of the Round of 12 in the driver playoffs, but the No. 5 car advanced all the way to the Championship 4 in the owner playoffs.)
Doing so is also a bit strange for the driver, too, as Elliott alluded to. Driver glory, after all, lies in the driver’s championship — but the money to build and invest and reinforce a race team’s strength lies in the owner’s championship, a fact that was accentuated in the new charter system implemented in 2016.
Elliott said the next 10 weeks will present a “tough balance” for him — one of resetting after a disappointing regular season but also knowing that his results at Darlington have consequence.
Even still, he said so with an easy smile, as if some sort of weight had been lifted off him.
“I would love to just completely take a reset and try really hard to do things way different,” Elliott said. “And I still am going to try to do some of that. But it is a fine line because the car’s still in. So we still have to go perform at a high level. But there are definitely habits that I’d like to break. There are some things I’d like to do better. And you know, these next few weeks are a great opportunity for me to do that.
“But it still has meaning. So I’m still trying to find that balance.”
William Byron, Elliott’s HMS teammate, said that the owner’s championship is important to the No. 9 team.
“Those guys (on the 9 team), they always do a good job of executing races,” said Byron, who is in the playoffs after recording a series-best five wins during the regular season. “And I think they’ll put a lot of effort into the last 10 races and try to help us out when we can.
“I don’t expect their effort level to be any different.”
Elliott reiterated that Saturday.
“There’s a really fine line,” Elliott said, “because getting the car through these rounds is a big deal. “