Sometimes flying under the radar is a good thing. Chase Elliott wasn't really in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series title conversation — until he inserted himself there by winning his way into the final elimination round. Even then, Elliott was overlooked as a championship favorite despite having effectively eliminated nine-time race winner Kevin Harvick the previous week. Denny Hamlin was the favorite based on his own seven-win season, and both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were former champions. It looked like Elliott would be the odd man out.
But he wasn't. Elliott led nearly half of the laps in the race, dominating as the season wound to an end and toting home his first champion's trophy. On the way to winning that title, Elliott posted career bests in wins, top 5s, top 10s, laps led, and average finish. He improved his DNF total as well, dropping from six in 2019 to three last year.
Elliott has worked with veteran crew chief Alan Gustafson since entering the Cup Series full time in 2016. Gustafson has been with Hendrick Motorsports as a crew chief since 2005, and Elliott is the fifth driver he's called the shots for, winning with four of them. His 11 wins with Elliott match his total with Hall of Fame driver Jeff Gordon in the same amount of time. Elliott's five wins in 2020 matched Gustafson's career-best season, which came in 2009 with Mark Martin. Gustafson calls a solid race, and his strategy meshes with Elliott's driving style.
There shouldn't be a question mark about the reigning champion's equipment, because he just won a title in it, and it's not as big a concern as it was a year ago. But Hendrick Motorsports did slip a little behind in 2018 and 2019, and while issues with the Chevrolet Camaro appear to have largely been solved, there's still work to do. Hendrick boasted the biggest powerhouse in the sport a decade ago, but that's no longer the case. The organization has rebounded and will contend with Elliott again this year, but there are wrinkles to iron out in terms of across-the-board consistency. In-house Hendrick engines are Chevy's top power plants.
So what's the three-time Most Popular Driver's edge entering 2021? Experience. There's a trajectory that Cup drivers take, and while the good ones take it faster, it holds true almost universally. Before they win races, they have to learn to race with the top drivers. Elliott spent two seasons learning those lessons before breaking into the win column. The same holds true for winning titles — racing the contenders in a playoff situation comes before true contention. Elliott did that, too, taking his lumps in 2018 and 2019. He learned from the drivers racing for the title how to race for it himself, and he learned his lesson quickly. With five wins, the season would still have been a success without a championship, putting him on the map entering the '21 season. The title was really the icing on the cake. Now, it's the No. 9 team's primary focus thanks to Elliott's invaluable experience last year.
With six road courses on the 2021 schedule, Elliott has to be excited, as he's proved to be the top road racer in the Cup Series the last couple of years, winning both of the road races the series ran in 2020. The flat ovals have also been kind to him.
Is there an Achilles heel for the 25-year-old? Yes. When Elliott wasn't posting top-10 finishes, he was often in the back half of the field. In the 14 races in which he finished outside the top 10 last year, he finished 20th or worse 10 times. That could hurt him in the playoffs, a lesson he no doubt learned from Harvick's elimination.
If Elliott can maximize those opportunities a bit more, he'll be contending for a repeat in November, and doing it as the favorite instead of the underdog.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 7/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)