LAS VEGAS — These fickle playoffs have proved perplexing and frustrating for Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
For the third consecutive time, Elliott entered a round as the points leader only to struggle and give away part of his advantage. That his 21st-place finish Sunday at Las Vegas is his best result in the opening race of a round in this year’s playoffs is telling.
Had Elliott not won the regular season title (collecting 15 playoff points) and five races this season, he likely would be below the cutline with two races left in the Round of 8. The series races Sunday at Homestead (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
His performance in the regular season has him 17 points above the cutline in a playoffs that has seen him finish 20th or worse four times and place in the top 10 only twice.
While he won Talladega and finished second at Bristol earlier in the playoffs, Elliott crashed at Darlington and crashed at Texas after tire issues. He saw his chances of winning at the Charlotte Roval end when a sign fell on the track to create a caution. On the restart, he was spun and finished 20th.
Elliott was not competitive Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He scored no stage points and ran the final 185 laps outside the top 10.
“Long day,” he said. “I did a terrible job, and I couldn’t give (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and everybody a good direction as to how to fix it. Just got worse and made it worse and I didn’t get any better. Frustrating day.”
While Elliott has those points from the regular season to fall back on, Blaney doesn’t. Blaney still seeks his first points win in a season that has had a record-tying 19 different winners.
Blaney was running second Sunday when he lost control of his car and hit the wall with less than 40 laps left.
Instead of having a chance to win, Blaney had a beat-up car that finished 28th, seven laps behind the leaders. It marked the third time in seven playoff races this season that Blaney has finished 26th or worse.
The result dropped him to seventh in the playoff standings. He’s 11 points below the cutline with two races left in the Round of 8.
“Just got loose and wrecked,” Blaney said. “Unfortunate deal.”
Asked if he felt he had the winning car, Blaney said after the race: “It doesn’t matter now. We wrecked.”
Later in the garage, Blaney and Travis Geisler, Team Penske competition director spoke, while Joey Logano’s team celebrated its victory.
“He doesn’t point fingers,” Geisler told NBC Sports of Blaney. “He’s going to look at what he did wrong in the situation. It’s our job to look at it holistically, and we didn’t do a good enough job for him on pit road to keep track position.
“When you put those guys behind the eight ball, they’re going to do things to get back, but at times, that’s more risk than you want to take. Unfortunately, that’s kind of how it worked out there. He’s really good at processing it, putting it behind and going to the next week.
“It’s just been a tough year of not getting wins where he’s been so fast. It keeps compounding. We’ve got to break through that for him. He’s certainly got the talent and speed to do that.”
Winning the first race in the Round of 8 is viewed as a major advantage because it gives that team two weeks to prepare for the championship race, while the rest of the playoff contenders is focused on the next event.
Three times in the last six years the driver who won the opening race in the Round of 8 went on to win the championship. Those drivers were Jimmie Johnson (2016), Joey Logano (2018) and Kyle Larson (2021).
Travis Geisler, Team Penske’s competition director, told NBC Sports that he doesn’t see winning the opening race in the Round of 8 to be as significant an advantage with the Next Gen car.
“It’s s a little different than it used to be when you were kind of building more of the car, where you could really spend more time just on all the pieces and parts that you’re making and building than maybe what you could normally,” he said.
“Now with the car being a lot more kind of stable from the parts and pieces perspective, that changes. But the physical prep of what’s your driver focused on, what’s your team focused on, what are your engines working on, they’re a lot less concerned about Homestead right now. … All their prep work is going to go into Phoenix now.”
Geisler said that one benefit of winning the first race in the Round of 8 remains the same.
“From a stress level, there’s just a little bit of a relief from the pressure that you feel every week in this playoff thing,” he said.
But that won’t last for Logano’s team.
“For them, they got a two week period now where it’s calm and focused,” he said. “Then the pressure comes back once you get to the end.”
Could Sunday’s race be what gets Denny Hamlin back to the championship race and gives him the opportunity to win his first series title?
Hamlin started 31st at Las Vegas after his car got loose in qualifying and he had to get off the gas to regain control. That was the worst starting spot among the eight playoff drivers.
Hamlin did not score points in the first stage but collected six points in the second stage before finishing fifth in the race.
He had to hustle to get fifth after a pit road issue on his final stop at Lap 229. The air hose got caught on the right front splitter and delayed the tire changer in going around the car. The pit stop was 13.7 seconds, according to Racing Insights. Nineteen teams had faster four-tire stops on that lap. Hamlin entered pit road fifth and exited 11th.
“Those guys were trying to bust off a good one,” Hamlin said. “They actually recovered pretty nicely there. That was a crucial one because it looked like a lot of guys had bad pit stops on that stop and it wold have probably pus us first or second.”
But Hamlin said he also takes responsibility for his finish.
“Honestly, I probably didn’t do the best on restarts, and we didn’t do a good job with car speed,” he said.
Hamlin said he got a good restart on the final one and that helped him gain those six positions to finish fifth. Earning those six points proved valuable. Hamlin holds the final transfer spot to the championship race. He leads William Byron, the first driver below the cutline, by six points.