Former NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott running out of time to make playoffs

Chase Elliott looks on before a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — Chase Elliott is running out of time.

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion, whose year was stunted by a snowboarding accident and hindered by a suspension, needs to win one of the next three races to earn a spot in the playoffs.

“It's the only option,” he acknowledged.

On a short week, the series shifts to the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon 200 on Sunday before the regular season closes with races at Watkins Glen and Daytona.

Elliott lasted just 34 laps in the FireKeepers 400 at Michigan, where Chris Buescher won his second straight race on Monday, because a tire failure sent his car into the wall.

“Add it to the list,” he said.

The Hendrick Motorsports star had a setback March when he had surgery on his left leg after a snowboarding accident in Colorado, knocking him out of the Pennzoil 400 in Las Vegas days later and the next five races. After coming back, NASCAR suspended him for one race after it determined he deliberately wrecked Denny Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600.

The missed races, and some shaky performances, have put the fans' five-time choice as NASCAR's most popular driver in a precarious position for the playoffs.

Elliott is 22nd in points, 55 out of the 16th and final spot, and with four spots available in the 16-car postseason, he needs to win to get in along with the 12 playoff-eligible winners this year.

  photo  Chase Elliott (9) races with Kyle Busch (8), Denny Hamlin (11) and Ryan Blaney (12) during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are fifth and eighth in the standings, giving them relatively secure spots even if they don't win one of the final three races in the regular season. Bubba Wallace, who is 14th, and rookie Ty Gibbs (16th) are on the bubble.

Michael McDowell, Daniel Suarez, AJ Allmendinger, Alex Bowman, Austin Cindric have a shot, but like Elliott, they likely have to win before the regular season ends Aug. 26 at Daytona.

“If Daytona wasn’t already a madhouse, you can only imagine it now that you have all these prestigious drivers that are just below the cut line, going to lay it all out,” said Keselowski, a driver and part-owner for RFK Racing.

TV ratings dipped when Elliott was out and NASCAR would undoubtedly like a postseason with him in it.

Elliott, who is from Dawsonville, Georgia, has been in the Hendrick organization since he was 15 when he signed a development deal and quickly made his way into the Cup Series. He has qualified for the playoffs in each of his first seven seasons, winning it all three years ago and finishing fourth the previous last two years.

But he hasn’t led a lap since late June and hasn’t finished inside the top 10 since he was third at Chicago last month. It might help that seven of his 18 Cup wins have come at road courses, including two victories at Watkins Glen.

“The next two or three weeks is going to get more and more wild,” Keselowski said. “Chase Elliott is a heck of a road course racer. I know Hendrick Motorsports is coming loaded for bear for him the next two races.”

  photo  Chase Elliott, left, and William Byron talk during qualifications for a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)