Chase Elliott's best shot at making the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs appears to be now, at Watkins Glen International.
The 27-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver from Dawsonville, Georgia, is a two-time winner at the 14-turn, 2.45-mile, elevation-changing track in upstate New York, and of his 18 Cup Series career wins, seven are on road courses — two more than any other active driver. He's also the betting favorite to win this weekend at Watkins Glen.
Two years after he was the Cup Series champion, Elliott's road readiness could be his ticket to simply remaining in the running for the title when the 10-race postseason begins next month.
After Sunday at the Glen, the last chance for playoff hopefuls is the following Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5-mile superspeedway where opportunities to pass are at a premium and the potential for chaos is higher.
"Certainly don't want to have yourself in a position to have to win at Daytona, but that's a possibility at this point," Elliott said. "I feel way better about going to Watkins Glen than I do Daytona because there is more in my control going there versus a (restrictor) plate race."
Thirteen drivers have clinched berths in the 16-driver postseason field, including former Cup Series champs Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. Two more past champions, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, have solid holds on two of the remaining three playoff spots via points, while Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suàrez are on the bubble and need a victory or help. Wallace leads Suàrez by 28 points.
"We just need to keep doing what we are doing," Suárez said. "That's qualify well and earn stage points and get a good finish. There is still a lot of racing left, and we know we can do this."
Elliott's path is clear: He must win, this weekend or next, to make the postseason. This is his eighth season on NASCAR's top circuit, and he has never missed the playoffs. The past three years, he has been one of the four drivers eligible to win the title in the last race of the season.
But he hasn't won a race since last year's playoffs, in early October at Talladega Superspeedway, although he does have six top-five finishes this season in the No. 9 Chevrolet. His two second-place showings include last Sunday's race on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This season has been challenging almost from the start for Elliott, voted the series' most popular driver by fans the past five years. He broke his left leg while snowboarding in early March and was sidelined for six races, and he was suspended by NASCAR for another race in June after intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin. Those absences have him 19th in points, 80 behind the playoff cutline.
Yet no one would be surprised to see him eke out a spot at Watkins Glen, where he earned his first Cup Series win in August 2018.
"It will always be special because of that," Elliott said. "That was a day I will certainly never forget as a huge achievement in my career and a huge achievement for our team. We had been through some tough losses together and had a lot of really close calls. To finally get over the hump there was a really big deal."
Meanwhile, Truex is on the brink of clinching the regular-season title in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota. If the 43-year-old New Jersey native earns 56 or more points Sunday, it's his. He built his cushion over Hamlin to 60 points last week at Indianapolis.
"For us, it's business as usual," Truex said, "and these races are all important."