Can Elliott repeat as a Cup champion Sunday in Phoenix

AVONDALE, AZ — Defending a NASCAR Cup Series championship is no small task. It’s certainly not an 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. Elliott is now the fourth. The last two prior were bounced in the Round of 8 and Round of 12 respectively.

Drivers with Multiple Championships (1949-2020)

Rank

No. of Titles

Driver

Years

1

7

Jimmie Johnson

2016, ‘13, ’10, ‘09, ‘08, ‘07, ‘06

Dale Earnhardt

1994, ’93, ‘91, ‘90, ‘87, ‘86, ‘80

Richard Petty

1979, ‘75, ‘74, ‘72, ‘71, ‘67, ‘64

4

4

Jeff Gordon

2001, ‘98, ‘97, ‘95

5

3

Darrell Waltrip

1985, ‘82, ‘81

Cale Yarborough

1978, ‘77, ‘76

David Pearson

1969, ‘68, ‘66

Lee Petty

1959, ‘58, ‘54

Tony Stewart

2011, ‘05, ‘02

10

2

Kyle Busch

2019, ’15

Terry Labonte

1996, ‘84

Ned Jarrett

1965, ‘61

Joe Weatherly

1963, ‘62

Buck Baker

1957, ‘56

Tim Flock

1955, ‘52

Herb Thomas

1953, ‘51

* 16 total multiple NASCAR Cup Series champions

 

Elliott would also become the 17th driver all-time in the series with multiple championships and just the second active driver with more than one title, joining Kyle Busch (2015, 2019).

It’s just so hard to repeat as a champion in NASCAR. That’s why Elliott shouldn’t hold his head too low if he doesn’t win the championship for a second straight year on Sunday. The thing is, he made it back in the Round of 8 for the fourth straight year. That’s a tough feat to do. For the second straight year, he made it to the final round.

“Yeah, I think it’s just more kind of going through the motions last year and just learning I think more about ourselves through that experience than it is anything else,” Elliott said. “We didn’t have any experience with it last year and we were able to put our heads down and get the job done.

“I felt like we learned a lot about ourselves last year and really what we were capable of and how we could focus on the right things and go and ultimately get the job done, and I feel like our group has exemplified that that weekend and since.

“I think having gone through that experience once, we can hone in on the things that matter most and make our car go as fast as possible and execute a good race.

“I think just making sure you’re focusing on the right things is really the most important piece of the weekend, and I feel like our group is very capable of doing that.

“Hopefully we’re even more prepared now and we can go and do it again.”

But, in saying that, with a title last year and really getting over the hump, would 2021 be labeled a failure if he doesn’t at the very minimum have a shot at a championship this Sunday in Phoenix?

“Yeah, look, everybody has got an opinion. I don’t make the rules for the format,” he said. “The format is what it is. What I know is I have an opportunity to go and battle for a championship on Sunday, and outside of that, like I told you a minute ago, if it doesn’t make us go faster I’m not concerned about it.

“We have a motivation amongst our team to go get the job done, and that’s where our focus is.”

Last year, he entered on the heels of a win in the last two cut races (Charlotte and Martinsville). He looked on the surface way more as a favorite to win than he does now. It seems like he’s almost playing with house money right now.

The thing is, he came into the playoffs this year with a very similar regular season to the one he had in his championship winning season 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 for the playoffs back in August. “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.”

He’s just not been able to do that this postseason. He had issues in Darlington and finished 31st. He had a pit road mistake at Richmond and was fourth. Bristol came the run-in with Kevin Harvick. He did rebound to finish second in Vegas after a strategy mishap in the second stage, but was 18th a week later in Talladega. Then, Charlotte was another dustup with Harvick before being seventh and second in the first two races of the semifinal round.

That remarkably put him at +34 heading to Martinsville last week where all he had to do was survive. He did just that. That pushed him back to the Championship 4 where among the cars he has to beat is his nine win teammate Kyle Larson.

Do they have to speed to beat him head-to-head?

I feel like it’s kind of — everybody is kind of on their own,” Elliott said. “We all know that we need to go and put together a good race to have a good result, so hopefully we have four fast cars and hopefully Kyle and I can battle it out for the win.”

The thing is, the finishes this postseason are very similar as last too.

In Darlington, he was 20th last year and 31st this year. In Richmond, he was fifth last year and fourth this. In Bristol, he was seventh last year and 25th this. In Vegas, he was 22nd last year but second this. For ‘Dega, he was fifth last year and 18th this year. The Round of 8 tracks are in a different order but he started last year’s at Kansas in sixth. He started this year at Texas in seventh. Then he was 20th in Texas last year for the second race of the Round of 8 and runner-up this year at Kansas.

The ROVAL is the glaring difference as the others are very similar.

Elliott also noted during the media day 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.”

It comes down to winning and he’s just not done it. That’s the difference. He has one more shot this weekend. The thing is, he’s not won on an oval since at Phoenix last year. His only wins in 2021 are on road courses. He’s not won in general in the last 15 races with having just five top fives in that span.

Does that drought end Sunday?

NASCAR was built by hard working and dedicated families like the Frances, Pettys, Jarretts and Earnhardts, and this weekend Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott has the chance to build on his family’s legacy by adding another championship to the family name in the highest form of stock car racing – the NASCAR Cup Series.

 

If Elliott accomplishes the feat the Elliotts (Bill: 1988 and Chase: 2020) would join the Pettys (Lee: 1954, 1958, 1959 and Richard: 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979), and the Jarretts (Ned: 1961, 1965 and Dale: 1999) as just the third father-son combo to win multiple NASCAR Cup Series titles.

 

Elliott’s talent was apparent early on in his career. The Dawsonville, Georgia native jumped in the national NASCAR scene in 2013 in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series on a part-time basis, making nine starts and winning at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in just his sixth start. He then climbed up to the NASCAR Xfinity Series with JR Motorsport and became the first rookie in series history to win the series championship in 2014. He ran one more season in Xfinity, finishing runner-up in the points in 2015 before moving up to the NASCAR Cup Series fulltime in 2016 with Hendrick Motorsports.

 

“Yeah, it would be fantastic,” Elliott said of winning two titles in his career. “I think it’s obviously hard to say when you haven’t accomplished that. It’s kind of hard to say what if and how would you feel when you don’t know, you haven’t got there. Hopefully we have the opportunity to get there and can find out. We’ll see.”

Elliott has qualified for the Playoffs all six seasons he has competed in the NASCAR Cup Series, and this is the second time he has earned a spot in the Championship 4 Round (2020, 2021). Since running fulltime in the series, Elliott has made 220 starts putting up 13 wins, 73 top fives and 116 top 10s.

Crew Chief Corner: Alan Gustafson  

Since making his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series as a Hendrick Motorsport’s crew chief in 2005, Alan Gustafson has proven that he is one of the best in the sport. Now the 2020 series crew chief champion has the chance to become the 11th different crew chief in the NASCAR Cup Series to win back-to-back titles and the 16th to win multiple titles all-time. If Gustafson and the No. 9 team pull off consecutive titles in the NASCAR Cup Series, he would join fellow crew chiefs Dale Inman, Chad Knaus, Kirk Shelmerdine, Ray Evernham, Bud Moore, Lee Petty, Andy Petree, Herb Nab, Jake Elder and Carl Kiekhaefer in accomplishing the feat.

 

Crew Chiefs with Multiple Championships (1949-2020)

Rank

No. of Titles

Crew Chiefs

Years

1

8

Dale Inman

1964, ’67, ’71, ’72, ’74, ’75, ’79, ’84

2

7

Chad Knaus

2006, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’13, ’16

3

4

Kirk Shelmerdine

1986, ’87, ’90, ’91

4

3

Ray Evernham

1995, ’97, ’98

Bud Moore

1957, ’62, ’63

Lee Petty

1954, ’58, ’59

7

2

Adam Stevens

2019, ’15

Greg Zipadelli

2002, ’05

Andy Petree

1993, ’94

Jeff Hammond

1982, ’85

Tim Brewer

1978, ’81

Herb Nab

1976, ’77

Jake Elder

1968, ’69

Carl Kiekhaefer

1955, ’56

Smokey Yunick

1951, ’53

* 15 total multiple NASCAR Cup Series Crew Chief champions

 

During his 17 seasons of full-time competition, Gustafson has worked with five different drivers: Kyle Busch (2005-2007), Casey Mears (2008), Mark Martin (2009, 2010), Jeff Gordon (2011-2015) and Chase Elliott (2016-Present). And during those 17 seasons he led his drivers to 14 Playoff appearances and to wins in 13 of the 17 seasons. This weekend at Phoenix will mark his third appearance in the Championship 4 Round, his first appearance was with NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon in 2015 when they finished the season third in points.

 

The Elliott-Gustafson pair has combined for the following achievements in 215 NASCAR Cup Series races together since 2016:

  • 13 wins
  • 73 top fives
  • 116 top 10s
  • 3,949 laps led
  • 9 poles
  • One NASCAR Cup Series Championship (2020)
  • Two NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearances (2020, 2021)
  • Six consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances (2016-2021)

 

The two will look to capture their second NASCAR Cup Series championship together this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. Last season, Gustafson became the 41st different crew chief in the series with a championship.

 

Adding to the historic legacy of Hendrick Motorsports

When it comes to winning titles in the NASCAR Cup Series, no organization does it better than Hendrick Motorsports with their series leading 13 championships among four drivers – Chase Elliott (2020), Jimmie Johnson (2016, ’13, ’10, ’09, ’08, ’07, ’06), NASCAR Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon (2001, ’98, ’97, ’95) and Terry Labonte (1996).

 

Overall Hendrick Motorsports has 16 NASCAR national series owner championships, the all-time record in NASCAR (13 in Cup and three in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series – 1997, 1999, 2001).

 

And to boot, Hendrick Motorsports was the first organization in the series history to win four straight, from 1995-98 (Jeff Gordon in 1995 and 1997-98; Terry Labonte 1996) and then upped their record in the series with five straight, from 2006-2010 (Jimmie Johnson). Hendrick Motorsports has won 13 of the last 26 NASCAR Cup Series championships (1995-2020), putting the team’s title-winning percentage during that span at 50% – series-best.

 

But the 2021 season has been extra special with what the Hendrick Motorsports organization has been able accomplish. Heading into Phoenix this weekend, Hendrick Motorsports has earned 16 NASCAR Cup Series wins in 2021; Hendrick Motorsports’ second-most in a single season and third-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972-Present). 2021 is the organization’s 36th straight season with a victory; longest-ever streak by a team in the series and its 37th season overall with a win; the most-ever by a team in the series. Plus, Hendrick Motorsports swept first and second in seven races this season; tied for the second-most all-time and most by a team in NASCAR’s Modern Era. They also became one of two teams in Cup Series history to finish 1-2 in four straight races (between Dover and Sonoma). And to top all of that, the organization became the all-time wins leader in the NASCAR Cup Series with 279 total Cup wins – lead all other teams by 11 victories. Kyle Larson’s win in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway broke the all-time record previously held by Petty Enterprises (268 wins).

 

The Hendrick Motorsports foursome of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman also became the only team in NASCAR’s Modern Era to win six straight races (between Dover and Pocono) and

the only team in Cup history to have all four Cup cars entered in a race sweep the top-four finishes positions (Dover). They also became the first team in history with four winners under age 30 in a single season.

 

This season Hendrick Motorsports led a combined 3,918 laps; fifth-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972)-Present); 100 laps led away from a new Hendrick Motorsports team record (4,017 in 2009). Junior Johnson and Associates holds the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era organization record for the most laps led in a single season with 4,296.

 

Hendrick Motorsports 2021 dominance doesn’t end there, they also posted 32 finishes inside the top two; currently tied with Joe Gibbs Racing (2019) for the most in the Modern Era (since 1972), scored 81 top-10 finishes; the team’s third-most (84 in 2007, 82 in 2012), posted 53 top-five finishes; the team’s second-most (57 in 2007) and won 27 stages; had only won 33 prior to 2021. 

 

Since the inception of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs elimination-style format in 2014, the 2021 season is the first time Hendrick Motorsports has placed two drivers in the Championship 4 Round (Elliott, Larson). Impressively, Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one Playoff race in each of the 17 Playoff seasons (since 2004) for a combined 52 postseason wins, most all-time. 

 

Chase Elliott can add to the legacy of Hendrick Motorsports this weekend by winning the title and extending the organization’s record in series championships. In total, 13 different organizations have won at Phoenix Raceway in the NASCAR Cup Series, led by Hendrick Motorsports with 11 victories.

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