By Dustin Albino

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — For the first time since Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman joined Hendrick Motorsports, the teammates will be watching the playoffs from afar. But there’s still a lot to race for. 

Elliott, who missed six races from a broken leg in a snowboarding accident and was then suspended at World Wide Technology Raceway for intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600, is still in the running for the owner’s championship with the No. 9 team. In his absence, Josh Berry, Corey LaJoie and Jordan Taylor tallied enough points to rank 14th in the regular season, but 16th on the playoff grid. The No. 9 team edged out Bubba Wallace’s No. 23 team by 37 markers for the final spot.

“Hate the season has worked out like it has,” Elliott said on Saturday evening following his fourth-place finish in the regular season cutoff race at Daytona International Speedway. “The good news is the car got in with the owner’s points. That’s a big deal. Credit to Alan and everybody for continuing to work and scratch and claw while I was out to keep our team alive and to give ourselves a chance.

“That’s a big deal, probably much bigger than a lot of people realize for our team.”

Since Elliott returned from the injury at Martinsville Speedway, the No. 9 team has been among the most consistent teams in the garage. In the 17 races, Elliott had nine top-10 finishes — six of which were top fives — and just three finishes below 13th. His average finish for the regular season ended up being 13.2. 

Not being able to reach Victory Lane, however, is what kept the No. 9 team away from this year’s playoffs. 

“Looking forward to these next 10,” Elliott said. “Try to make a little noise on that side of things and just try to get ready and prepared for next year.

“I appreciate everybody’s support through this season. Hasn’t been what I would want by any means. Certainly [there are] going to be some lessons taken from it, and I think we’ll be better for it on the other end.”

Bowman, on the other hand, got off to a blistering start in 2023, as the No. 48 car was the only team to crack the top 10 in the first four races of the season. For the first time, he was the championship leader. 

Bowman‘s No. 48 team and William Byron’s No. 24 team each received a 60-point penalty following the seventh race of the season at Richmond Raceway for modifying the greenhouse of the Next Gen car. Bowman dropped to seventh in the season standings and couldn’t regain his mojo. 

Between the race weekends at Talladega Superspeedway and Dover Motor Speedway, Bowman was injured in a sprint-car crash in Iowa. He missed the next three races and the All-Star Race before returning to the No. 48 seat at the Coke 600. 

However, Bowman went dry during the summer and went 13 consecutive races without scoring a top 10 finish. He ended the regular season with two top 10s in the final three races, but was only good enough for 19th in the standings. Without a victory, he was also below the bubble.

“You can‘t put 2023 into words for me,” Bowman said. “Whether it‘s stuff that‘s happened with the Cup car, different kinds of racecars, off the track, it‘s been freaking terrible. I think our team is in a good place, I‘m in a good place and things are hopefully getting better. But it‘s been a tough year on a lot of fronts for a lot of people at Hendrick Motorsports. Hate that I let them down, breaking my back, and we‘ve got 10 weeks to make up for it.”

Bowman still believes the No. 48 team has all the tools necessary to win. Between the 2021 and 2022 season, he won five races and took the next step as a winning racecar driver. Plus, he knows how consistent the team was to start the season. 

But 2023 has been filled with trials and tribulations. Bowman considers it to be the toughest season he’s dealt with. 

“I think 2016, we were so fast everywhere,” he said. In 2017, I ran two Xfinity races and won one of them. In 2018, I had unrealistic expectations, probably, a little bit. But I feel like this year has been tough because we saw what we could do at the beginning of the year before I got hurt. Just got to keep digging.”

Bowman has won at two of the 10 tracks that make up the playoff schedule.

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