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Inside the NASCAR playoff battle no one is talking about

Right now, Chase Elliott is currently on the outside looking in regarding the NASCAR Cup Series playoff with two regular season races remaining, but he is also poised to contend for the championship that genuinely matters the most — the NASCAR Cup Series owner’s championship.

Even though most of the attention is given to the driver playoffs over the final 10 weeks, that accomplishment doesn’t mean anything when it comes to the economics of the sport, beyond the marketing fanfare associated with winning the championship.

The championship purse is exclusively paid out to teams based on the owner standings at the end of the year with the championship winning driver getting paid by a handful of contingency sponsorships and whatever he has owed per the terms of his contact.

For the second year in a row, this matters because the driver championship and owner’s championship will likely have different participants potentially all the way up to the season finale in November at Phoenix Raceway.

Last year, Kyle Larson failed to advance to the championship race as a driver but did race for the owner’s championship with the No. 5, a sequence of events triggered by Kurt Busch winning a race in the 23XI No. 45 before being forced into retirement due to a crash at Pocono Raceway.

In response, 23XI Racing moved Bubba Wallace into the No. 45 for the final 10 races so a veteran driver could race for that title instead of true rookie Ty Gibbs, who was moved to the No. 23 for the remainder of the season.

Related: NASCAR Indianapolis takeaways: Deja vu for Chase Elliott as playoff drama fades

Chase Elliott and the other NASCAR playoff battle

NASCAR: Verizon 200 at the Brickyard
Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

This year, Chase Elliott missed seven races between a fractured left tibia suffered in a snowboarding incident and his one-race suspension for intentionally crashing Denny Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600, creating a significant divergence between the driver and owner playoff pictures.

Even though Elliott was sidelined for those seven races, the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 car continued to race each week with Josh Berry and Jordan Taylor behind the wheel, accumulating enough points between them to have the entry in position to make the owner standings.

This is what that currently looks like:

15. RFK Racing No. 6 +115
16. Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 +51

17.  23XI Racing No. 23 -51
18. Trackhouse No. 99 -79
19. Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 -85

So, while Elliott is currently facing must-win odds over the next two weeks at Watkins Glen and Daytona, he is actually currently inside the cutline of the owner championship. Simultaneously, even though the 23XI No. 23 is outside of the owner standings, Bubba Wallace is inside the cutline of the driver championship, which looks like this following Michael McDowell’s upset victory at Indianapolis on Sunday.

14. Kevin Harvick +145
15. Brad Keselowski +143
16. Bubba Wallace +28

17. Daniel Suarez -28
18. Ty Gibbs -49
19. Chase Elliott -80
20. Alex Bowman -80

Of course, a new winner over the next two races could once again shake all of this up. The likes of AJ Allmendinger, Justin Haley, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece and Aric Almirola could all theoretically win a race and punch their tickets into both the driver and owner playoffs.

A new winner would bump Elliott’s car out of the owner playoffs, and he would then be left to race for no championship altogether. That’s actually what happened when McDowell won on Sunday. He actually placed both himself and his Front Row Motorsports No. 34 into both playoffs respectively.

That’s not the only unique deviation between the two standings.

Remember when Denny Hamlin was issued a 25-point penalty for admitting to intentionally putting Ross Chastain into the wall at Phoenix? That was only a driver point penalty and not an owners point penalty for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing car.

As a result, Hamlin is 60 points behind Martin Truex Jr. for the regular season standings, but the No. 11 JGR car is only 35 points behind the JGR No. 19 car for the regular season owner standings. This matters because the regular season champion gets 15 bonus playoff points added to the regular season total, and that number carries over from round-to-round. The second-place regular season finisher earns 10.

That’s true for the owner’s points, too, so it’s theoretically possible that Hamlin could gain enough points on Truex to win the regular season championship for the No. 11 entry but not enough to win the regular season championship as a driver.

Five points could make the difference between advancing to the final four at Phoenix as a car but not a driver and based on his Actions Detrimental podcast episode on Monday, it’s something Hamlin is keenly aware of.

“I could win the championship for the 11 team and I don’t win a (drivers) championship, again,” Hamlin said with a laugh. “It would be poetic and perfect.

What people don’t know, is that the 9 car is in on the owner’s side … Bubba is currently is as a driver but out on owners. The 9 car is in on owners but out on the driver.

“This isn’t to say that fans shouldn’t care about the driver championship and should instead place all their attention on the owner’s championship, but the latter is absolutely the one those inside the garage care the most about.”

It’s the one that ultimately pays the bills.

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