The battle for the final playoff spot will be the focus Saturday at Daytona (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock), but there will be another battle in play that is far more important to team owners.
Fifteen of the 16 spots in the owner championship are secure. Thirteen entries secured spots with wins. Two others – the No. 4 and No. 6 cars – are in on points. The final spot in the owner championship is up for grabs.
Why is the owner playoffs so important? It pays the bills.
The charter system has payments based on the owner standings — not the driver standings. Teams are paid on where they finish in the owner standings. There's also a payment based on where teams have finished the previous three seasons in the owner standings.
The better the car performs, the more valuable the charter is and the more money it receives.
The No. 9 Chevrolet of Hendrick Motorsports is currently in the final playoff spot in the owner standings. It has a 30-point advantage over the No. 23 Toyota of 23XI Racing. The No. 54 Toyota of Joe Gibbs Racing is 32 points back.
With only one race left in the season, the No. 9 and the No. 23 will be the two main entries in position to take this final spot. A new winner at Daytona from below an eligible car below the cutline would put that team in the owner playoffs.
The drivers know the importance of locking up a spot in the owner championship. Chase Elliott showed this after running out of fuel at Watkins Glen. He asked over the radio about the owner points after getting pushed back to pit road. Crew chief Alan Gustafson responded by telling him where the No. 9 was in relation to the No. 23.
Elliott missed seven races – six while recovering from a fractured tibia, one while serving a suspension for wrecking Denny Hamlin. These absences dropped him below the cutline on the driver side. Josh Berry and Jordan Taylor continued to score points in the No. 9 car on the owner side while serving as replacement drivers.
This created a scenario where Elliott could miss the driver playoffs, but the No. 9 could still compete in the owner championship. Bubba Wallace could make the playoffs while the No. 23 could miss the owner championship. This is something that happened last season.
Ryan Blaney made the playoffs on points, but the No. 12 missed the owner championship because the No. 45 of 23XI Racing took a spot with Kurt Busch’s win at Kansas. Busch ultimately withdrew from the playoffs while continuing his recovery from a concussion.
This created a ripple effect as 23XI Racing moved Wallace to the No. 45 so that he could control the entry competing in the playoffs. Ty Gibbs moved over to the No. 23 while continuing to serve as a replacement driver.
The ripple effect continued into the season finale at Phoenix. Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell and Chase Elliott contended for the driver championship. Kyle Larson’s No. 5 competed for the owner championship instead of Elliott’s No. 9.
Larson won at Homestead-Miami Speedway during the Round of 8 after being eliminated from the driver championship, and he put the No. 5 into the final four on the owner side. Logano ultimately won the driver championship while the No. 22 won the owner championship, so there was not a split championship.
The battle between the No. 9 and the No. 23 is not the only one worth watching. The standings at the top of the leaderboard are closer on the owner side than they are on the driver side.
Martin Truex Jr. leads the regular-season standings. He is 39 points ahead of Hamlin. On the owner side, the No. 19 is only 14 points ahead of the No. 11.
The difference in points is due to an incident at Phoenix in March. Hamlin received a 25-point penalty for intentionally squeezing Ross Chastain into the wall. NASCAR did not take away any points from the No. 11.
This 25-point difference could come into play at Daytona and later in the playoffs. Those lost points on the driver side could be the difference between Hamlin moving on to another round or being eliminated from championship contention. These points also create a scenario where Hamlin gets eliminated while the No. 11 moves on to another round ahead of another entry.