KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Chase Elliott insisted the weekly routine hasn’t changed a bit within the Hendrick Motorsports garages, the four teams swapping information and ideas as if they were preparing for any other race.
Only their race Sunday at Kansas Speedway isn’t just any other race.
Especially for three of the team’s four drivers.
Elliott is joined by Alex Bowman and William Byron outside of the cutline for the round of eight in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Each still could mathematically advance based on points, but realistically they all face must-win situations to avoid elimination.
“Obviously one of us could make it and the rest of us couldn’t, so there’s definitely more at stake,” said Elliott, who was the only Hendrick driver to advance to the semifinals last season.
“I can’t bow out of our competition meeting and I don’t think any of the other guys would,” he added. “We’ll continue to do our parts and however we use that to our advantage is up to us.”
Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney already won to lock up their places in the next round, which begins at Martinsville. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are reasonably safe based on points, leaving Penske Racing teammates Brad Keselowski and defending Cup Series champ Joey Logano as the most vulnerable to falling below the cut line.
Bowman is 20 points behind Keselowski and 18 back of Logano, while Elliott is another four points adrift. Byron is five more back, behind Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer in the standings.
“I think this is the toughest round of 12 that I’ve been part of in my four years for sure,” Elliott said. “All 12 teams and drivers are good that are left right now. We knew coming into this round it wasn’t going to be easy, and it was going to be tough to move on, and here we are.”
Elliott qualified 14th on Saturday, two spots ahead of Bowman, while Byron will start 25th. But it’s hard to put too much stock into qualifying efforts because there is no practice before the race, and many teams eschewed raw speed for a car that will handle better when it matters.
Things looked much rosier for Hendrick Motorsports after qualifying last week. Elliott led a team sweep of the top four spots at Talladega, and there was a certain confidence throughout the garage.
That slowly dissipated as the laps wore on — and the rain set in.
Elliott wound up wrecking in the second stage, though he rallied to finish eighth when the race concluded Monday. Bryon crashed out and finished 33rd and Bowman did likewise and finished 37th, and Blaney added to their misery when he beat Ryan Newman in a photo finish.
Blaney’s first win of the season took him from points peril into the next round. If he finished second to Newman, that would have put Bowman above the cut line in the final transfer spot.
Now, all three Hendrick drivers face quite the predicament at Kansas Speedway.
“We’re learning from each practice and I think we’ll that ability still,” Byron said, “and when the race starts it’s going to be all about going forward and trying to win for each of our teams.”
This isn’t the first time Hendrick Motorsports could lose three drivers in what amounts to the quarterfinal round of the playoffs. Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahn and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were knocked out in the round of 12 in 2015, though Jeff Gordon eased some of that pain by advancing.
Elliott was knocked out in the same round in 2016, when Johnson went on to win his seventh title at Homestead. Kahne was cut the next year when Johnson and Elliott advanced.
Bowman failed to advance last season, leaving Elliott the only Hendrick car in the final eight.
He could be carrying the banner for the team again this season.
“We knew last week we were in a tough spot,” said Elliott, who won the first race in the last round to advance. “I knew after we didn’t score any points in the first stage Sunday, we needed to win the second stage and finish in the top five to be in the points situation well enough. Then we crashed coming to the end of the second stage, our fate would be to win the race or win at Kansas.
“It didn’t happen at Talladega,” Elliott added. “Maybe it’ll happen here.”
Then again, maybe it will happen for Bowman or Byron.
“We can’t approach it any differently than we have any week leading up to this,” Bowman said. “I feel like when you try to step your game up or change what you’re doing, you end up making mistakes or not doing as well. We were really strong here in the spring, I feel like we’ve only gotten stronger since then. We have a great race car here and we have to go execute.”