The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship season was a hard act to follow for Chase Elliott, but the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet did an admirable job. He won twice, on the road courses at Circuit of the Americas and Road America, and he matched the career-high 15 top-5 finishes he took home in 2020 while making the final championship cut and finishing fourth in points. He also scored 21 top 10s, led 952 laps and set career bests in average start and average finish.
Oh, and he won the Most Popular Driver award again, too.
It would be a mistake to discount Elliott’s 2021 season because he didn’t win the title. Winning back-to-back championships is quite a feat — it’s been accomplished by only 10 drivers, all Hall of Famers and none under the current championship format.
Elliott has played a major role in Hendrick Motorsports’ recent success. The organization struggled enough for parts of 2018 and 2019 that it found itself a half step behind other top teams despite having won the Cup title in 2016 with Jimmie Johnson. Elliott’s 2020 charge helped turn that slump around, and the organization was dominant in 2021, winning 17 races among the four drivers.
With four young wheelmen — all four HMS drivers are under 30 — Elliott has teammates to work with in Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron who have come through the ranks in similar vehicles. Sharing information can be difficult in a four-car organization, and it’s easy for one driver or team to be on a different page. That hasn’t appeared to be the case for the current Hendrick lineup, and that’s a huge benefit for Elliott as teams adapt to the new racecar: There’s four times the information, and if the drivers have similar needs, it’s that much easier to meet them.
Remember that Most Popular Driver award? On its own it’s a nice piece of hardware, but it’s also a great marketing angle, and it adds value for sponsors. NAPA Auto Parts backs the majority of Elliott’s season, and other sponsors include Hooters, Kelley Blue Book, Llumar and Adrenaline Shoc. Popularity has its perks.
Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson have a strong working relationship — Elliott communicates his needs well, and Gustafson is a veteran with a thick playbook when it comes to race strategy. He calls a smart race, and the pit crew executes well. Elliott doesn’t often lose ground in the pits unless there are major changes to be made.
Another strength of the No. 9 team is finishing races. Elliott was running at the end of 33 of 36 races last year and failed to finish just once due to crash damage. Another DNF was for a rare engine failure, and the third was for a post-race disqualification. Elliott was on the lead lap in 31 of those races; he tied with champion teammate Larson in that category, and only two drivers, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, had more lead-lap finishes than the Hendrick pair. Winning races is about being in the right position to capitalize on every available spot, and finishing races on the lead lap goes a long way toward that end.
Elliott will be a title contender in 2022 because he has every piece of the package. He and his team rarely make mistakes, he enjoys the best equipment money can buy and he’s got confidence from multiple sponsors and from fans. It’s hard to say there’s a weakness here, and at the end of the year, the only thing standing between Elliott and another title could well be one of his own teammates. That’s a pretty good problem to have. Expect Elliott to be in the thick of the championship conversation on a regular basis for the foreseeable future.