Defending a NASCAR Cup Series championship is no easy feat. Since the turn of the century, only Jimmie Johnson’s reign from 2006 through 2010 is the only time someone defended his crown. In fact, since 1995, just Johnson and Jeff Gordon accomplished this feat. Can Chase Elliott become the third driver in the last 26 years to do so?
Just three times in the previous six years has the defending Cup champion advanced back to the Championship 4 the following season. The last two were bounced in the Round of 8 and Round of 12 respectively.
But, maybe this timing is different for Elliott. See, the previous two drivers that have gone back-to-back were also Hendrick Motorsports drivers like Elliott. I know I’m technically splitting hairs here, but Elliott comes into Sunday’s playoff opener at the Darlington Raceway with very similar stats to his championship winning campaign of a year ago.
Through the first 26 races of the 2020 regular season, Elliott had two wins, 10 top five finishes and 15 top 10’s. For the same span in 2021, he has two wins, 11 top fives and 16 top 10’s.
“To be real honest with you, I don’t really feel any different than I did going in last year,” Elliott said during media day on Tuesday. “I mean, it’s nice to have seen some of those circumstances and to have gone through some of those things that you’re faced with mentally, just some of those challenges, as you step through that last round and get to Phoenix.
“But to me the message is really no different than it was last year. To me it’s just about enjoying those big moments. If you don’t enjoy them, you’re never going to thrive in them. A big moment typically means it means something to you and it typically means there’s opportunity for something big at the end of it.
“You have to like it. I mean, that’s to me the biggest piece of the whole puzzle. I don’t think that message will ever change whether you have zero championships, or you have 15. I feel like that’s the single most important piece of how this Playoff format works. It promotes winning, and winning in big situations.”
In saying that, Elliott also notes that he doesn’t feel like he really did anything differently last year than he did in the years prior. It’s just taking some of those experiences and really, he says, just enjoying those bigger moments more.
“I think that’s something I did a poor job of in the past, kind of letting those moments be bigger than what they should have been,” he continued. “I feel like last year we really just tried to boil things down to just the nuts and bolts of what mattered.
“Ultimately as you go through these rounds, if it’s not going to make us go faster, I really don’t care about it. In doing that, I think it makes you enjoy those bigger moments more because you’re more focused on things that can make a difference at the end of the day and the results you get.
“That’s where my head’s at again. I’m looking forward to getting going.”
In order to win this year’s title, he’s also likely going to have to go through one of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the process. Kyle Larson enters as the odds on favorite but both Alex Bowman (3 wins) and William Byron (1 win) have also had career years as well. There’s been talks of HMS putting multiple cars in the Championship 4 this year. How does it work over the final 10 races to take care of your teammates, but to also fight against them too for a title?
“It’s definitely unique, for sure,” Elliott said. “But I think we’ve all — a lot of us have been around racing long enough, have been doing it long enough, to kind of understand how that dynamic works.
“At the end of the day, I feel like for Mr. Hendrick especially, he’s done a lot for the sport, he’s changed a lot of people’s lives in the sport, mine included. If his cars are racing against each other for a championship, I think he deserves that. I think at the end of the day it’s a good thing.
“I’m for it. And it really doesn’t matter who you’re racing against, you just hope you’re around at the end of this thing and have a shot.”