All the Ways Atlanta Affected the Cup Championship Picture

Atlanta had some playoff implications but not the anticipated ones.

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Everyone knows the NASCAR Cup Series championship race is largely a crapshoot so simply getting to Phoenix is the mark of a truly great season.

From there, it’s just one race, and whatever happens, happens.

As a result, Chase Elliott and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 team becoming the first to reach three wins in the most level playing field ever was a significant development. That Elliott was already the championship leader lent considerable legitimacy to their status as championship favorites but winning the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta cemented it.

With the extreme parity produced by the first year of the Next Gen car, no one has truly run away in either championship points or playoff points to this point. As a result, there is no Big Three or anything resembling a team that can somewhat coast through the first two rounds like we’ve seen over the past seven years.

But winning at Atlanta might have put Elliott alone in the category of a driver who will have the most insulation against an early playoff elimination this summer. First, let's take a look at the playoff grid as it stands right now.

That doesn’t even tell the whole story because winning at Atlanta also increased Elliott’s championship lead to 47 points over a still winless Ryan Blaney. Why does that matter? The regular season champion earns an additional 15 playoff points paid at the start of each round in addition to playoff points accrued throughout the regular season and in each round.

Finishing second in the regular season standings pays 10, third place receives eight points, and the points awarded decline to one point for 10th (fourth = seven points, fifth = six points, etc.).

So, while Elliott technically has 20 playoff points, he provisionally has 35 and whatever he gets through stage wins and victories over the rest of the summer, assuming he claims the regular season championship.

They’re the Vegas betting favorites too, not that crew chief Alan Gustafson is putting any stock into that narrative right now.

"It doesn’t matter," Gustafson said. "I think it’s way early. I think a lot of things can happen. We could go next week, and I don’t know who all has two wins, but certainly William I know has two wins, and he could go win or Ross could win or Denny could win or whoever ...

"I’ve always said I feel like if we do our job and operate to our highest potential, I feel like we’ll be able to give anybody a run for their money and compete on any given day. We just focus on that and focus on trying to improve. There’s still things we can do better."

But the competition, like 2004 champion Kurt Busch, knows the 9 team are the current standards.

"There have been a lot of winners," Kurt Busch said, "but Chase Elliott has been that consistent rock."

So sure, anyone could get hot over the final six regular season races, and certainly the playoffs are their own kind of special crapshoot, but it seems increasingly likely that Elliott will be amongst the final four racing for a championship at Phoenix Raceway for a third consecutive season in November.

There will be three other spaces, so certainly cases could be made for the likes of William Byron, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson, but the pathway there is a little more competitive compared to the 9 team.

And then there’s Ross Chastain, who could certainly be a championship favorite if it weren’t for all the strife surround his season thus far.

Based purely on the performance and the statistics, Chastain would be a bonafide threat to make the final four if not for the fact that there is a line, nearly a dozen long, of drivers insinuating or at least hinting that he won’t make it there as a repercussion of his actions.

The Trackhouse Racing No. 1 team has been involved in several argy-bargies this season and it’s becoming inevitable that the debt will be sent to collections come September. Three of those incidents have involved Hamlin, who has basically said he’s had enough.

Is it to the point where Chastain can no longer win the championship?

"It all works itself out in the end," Hamlin said.

It’s an outcome Joey Logano got familiar with in 2015, for example.

Chastain has worked to clear the air with Hamlin, who is also viewed as something of a leader in both the garage and the driver’s advisory council, as they’ve spoken on the phone about what has happened at various points this season.

When the latest incident occurred on Sunday at Atlanta, Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart both expressed disappointment that the lessons imparted from those conversations seemingly hadn’t been taken to heart.

It was especially disappointing to Chastain who was seemingly in disbelief that it happened between himself and Hamlin again … citing the damage from the previous crash as making his car tighter than he anticipated.

But that’s the point of contention the rest of the garage has too -- that it happens so often with the same line of reasoning.

… I overdrove and didn’t anticipate …

Truex took a degree of responsibility for the crash earlier in the race, but Chastain doesn’t isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt from his peers anymore after so many priors. It’s also simply caked into his driving style.

His wins at Circuit of the Americas and Talladega reflect that too, with how he used the bumper on AJ Allmendinger on the road course and seemingly attempted to cause a crash while being lapped at the Alabama superspeedway.

Chastain surely doesn’t want to lessen his aggressive nature, seeing it as the difference between winning races or simply earning top-5s in them. It’s how he has positioned himself as one of the five most likely championship candidates come November.

His background and driving style has also afforded him a growing fanbase and comparisons to Dale Earnhardt Sr.

It’s also made him the least likely of those five to make it to the Championship Race before that debt is collected.

Chase Elliott winning a third race at one of the few remaining wild card races also might have nixed the growing conviction that the Cup Series could get to 17 different regular season winners.

There are currently 13 winners with seven races remaining:

  • New Hampshire
  • Pocono
  • Indianapolis Road Course
  • Michigan
  • Richmond
  • Watkins Glen
  • Daytona

With that said, the list of winless racers who have proved capable of doing so this season still exceeds the number of races remaining:

  • Ryan Blaney, second in points
  • Martin Truex Jr, sixth in points
  • Christopher Bell, eight in points
  • Kevin Harvick, 2014 champion
  • Aric Almirola
  • Erik Jones
  • Austin Dillon
  • Michael McDowell

The latter there is most interesting because people have largely slept on McDowell, who is quietly having his career best season this year, one season after winning the Daytona 500 and participating in the playoffs as a result.

McDowell is 21st in the standings with an average finish of 16.5 and is more than capable of winning on a road course or superspeedway under the right circumstances even if it’s not likely.

And then there’s Corey Lajoie, who could certainly win Daytona, but with a playoffs caveat. He is currently 31st in the standings and would have to be in the top-30 to qualify in with a victory. Lajoie is 44 points behind Brad Keselowski for 30th.

Which brings us to Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher, who swept both Daytona Duels in February. So, there’s two more wild cards for the remaining wild card races.

It’s increasingly less likely the Cup Series gets to 17 winners now but it’s still not impossible.

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