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Elliott hesitant to embrace favorite role in NASCAR playoffs

If there is a favorite for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship, the best case statistically can probably be made for Chase Elliott. But he isn’t so sure.

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, A SHOC Chevrolet Camaro, Cup Series Regular Season Championship trophy presentation

Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

Behind four wins – two more than any other driver – Elliott captured the regular season title and amassed 40 playoff points, 15 more than second-seed Joey Logano.

In a season which has seen 16 different winners in the regular season (15 of whom are in the playoffs) thanks in part to the debut of the Next Gen car, Elliott came closer than anyone else to being a dominant force throughout the season.

Yet even he had his struggles.

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports

Photo by: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

He wrecked out of two races and had one three-race stretch in early summer where he didn’t finish better than 21st. He had another four-race stretch more recently where he led a combined one lap.

Still, Elliott is in a far better position entering the playoffs than he has been previously in his career, including his 2020 championship-winning season (when he started with 20 playoff points).

“There’s been too many people good at different times. Just because we have a win more than other people doesn’t mean other people aren’t capable of winning or having a really good day,” Elliott, 26, said.

“You have to respect the whole field. There are a lot of really talented drivers and a lot of really smart people working at these teams.

“I feel like we’re in a good place. I think we could be better for sure. But I think we’re in a solid spot mentally and in a position where we’ve learned some lessons that we can apply going forward.”

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Elliott certainly welcomes the playoff point advantage entering Sunday night’s playoff opener at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and would like to see his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team replicate that feat more often.

However, he doesn’t believe that advantage necessarily guarantees anything, even in the first three-race round.

“I don’t think anybody is safe at any point in time. You have to respect this format from Week One all the way to Week 10. I don’t think there is ever a period of time where you should think anything is taken for granted,” Elliott said.

“No amount of playoff points is ever safe. Each round is so short. You could have two bad weeks back-to-back and do nothing wrong. Next thing you know, you’re in a position where you have to win the last race. That can happen to the guy who is first in points or the guy that is last. No one is safe from that.”

Still many unknowns

While the series has already made visits this season to all three tracks in the first round – Darlington, Kansas and Bristol, Tenn. – the Bristol race was on dirt in the spring.

That means the cutoff race for the first round will be a new experience for teams with the Next Gen car.

“That one is really interesting, in my opinion,” Elliott said. “I’m excited to get to Bristol. It’s an iconic event on our schedule. That fall night race is one that I always look forward to going to.

“Hopefully, (we) get it right because it will be a bit of a guess for everyone.”

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