Through the first nine races of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, three of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers have won a race, but the defending champion isn’t one of them.
There have also been eight different winners, and the current championship leader and winner of seven races last season also isn’t one of them.
What about the team that led the Cup Series with nine wins last season? You guessed it. Not one of them.
Pretty compelling if you think about it.
That’s where we are through the first quarter of the 2021 season — a campaign that began with underdog Michael McDowell winning the Daytona 500, an almost random assortment of race winners, and no decisive championship favorites.
What we’ve learned at the 25 percent mark can be found below.
Denny Hamlin has the largest championship lead through nine races since NASCAR introduced stage racing in 2017.
His 4.2 average finish is easily the best in the Cup Series and has already amassed five playoff points even without having won a race. Should he capture the regular season championship, that’s 15 more playoff points regardless of how many wins claimed by the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
“I’d rather be where I am than Alex Bowman,” said Hamlin after losing to the No. 48 Hendrick team on the final restart at Richmond. “I don’t care that he’s got a win. We’re smashing everyone. I’d still rather be where I’m at.”
It may sound arrogant or salty, but the truth is that Hamlin has been in contention to win literally every race this spring. The No. 11 team has the best overall performance based on weekly lap times. Hamlin is also the second best restarter behind Ryan Blaney.
Martin Truex Jr. has also been in the mix virtually every week and is top-five in speed, restarts and average finish in addition to being the only driver to have multiple wins thus far.
“It’s exciting to be here with two wins at this point in the season, compared to last year,” Truex said. “It’s always good. You always want to do better than previous years. Having two wins this early is great. It’s good for points. It’s good for Playoff points.”
It’s cliché in NASCAR nomenclature, but there is an early Big Three, and Joey Logano completes the triumvirate through nine races.
Logano, like his contemporaries in this group has shown elite pure speed and consistent results and has contended for the win in nearly every race this season.
Much could change into the summer months, especially if Stewart-Haas overcomes the challenges presented by the addition of a rear template inspection, but these are the top teams through nine races.
Big Three is probably premature but this is the best there is thus far.
Chase Elliott and Alan Gustafson surely won’t appreciate the irony, but the defending champions are the only group from the Hendrick Motorsports stable to have not yet won a race this season.
Yet is the operative word.
William Byron won at Homestead, Kyle Larson followed at Atlanta and Alex Bowman broke through at Richmond, while Elliott has yet to win through nine starts.
That only tells half the story, of course.
Elliott dominated the Daytona Road Course and only a dubious late caution and the decisions that followed it denied the No. 9 an early organizational sweep of victory lane in the first quarter of the season.
Hendrick Motorsports is in a good place, overall, and the champions aren’t totally far removed from their overall production from 2020. Their points position is drug down by the results at Daytona and the engine expiration while leading at Atlanta.
Elliott could have won Darlington last spring, won at weeknight Charlotte and contended in the Coca-Cola 600. That doesn’t even include the remaining road course. That’s to say Elliott should be fine based on his teammates’ performances.
So much of success right now in the Cup Series with the current generation car and its various rules packages comes down to how much downforce teams can find and build into their program.
That’s especially true with the 550 package, where teams are rarely off the throttle and success comes down to restart execution and how much drag teams have eliminated from their cars.
It’s the same for the so-called low downforce rules package, too.
Even with the small spoiler and more powerful engine formula, success is still dependent on how much downforce teams can build into their cars.
Right now, there are three clear organizational frontrunners in Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports.
The obvious missing element is Stewart-Haas Racing — which continues to be challenged by a loss of rear downforce due to NASCAR implementing a template in addition to the optical scanning station this year — and isn’t close to what they were when Harvick took that equipment to nine wins.
Likewise, Chip Ganassi Racing is in a terrible spot right now, too. Its hard to read too much into Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain’s performance, especially on the 750 package tracks, because it’s just not the drivers’ fault.
Richard Childress Racing and its allied teams, especially Trackhouse Racing, have showed breakthrough potential this season too. Austin Dillon is quietly having his most consistent season, 12th in points, with Daniel Suarez taking Trackhouse to playoff caliber (top-16) runs over the past month.
Just remember: There’s a parts freeze in place due to the impending arrival of the Next-Gen car next season so it’s even harder to dig out of a hole, or maybe some teams have already placed a greater emphasis on the upcoming platform.
In the case of Stewart-Haas, you have to think they’ll find what they’re missing, before the summer. And wouldn’t be something, if Stewart-Haas, which was victimized by the playoff format last season, would actually benefit from the reset this fall after they regain their lost speed?
Kevin Harvick is actually doing some of his best driving right now, the fifth-best driver in the Cup Series based on Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER), a Motorsports Analytics statistical formula designed to rank driver performance in equal equipment. The driver is the same guy that won nine races last season, but he’s waiting on the organization to regain the lost downforce.
1. Joe Gibbs Racing
2. Team Penske
3. Hendrick Motorsports
4. JTG Daugherty Racing
5. RCR Alliance
6. Stewart Haas Racing
It’s sometimes easy to get so sucked into organizational speed that you overlook the work put in by the drivers themselves.
That’s even true for the intermediate tracks using the high downforce – low horsepower rules package, as polarizing as it remains, which still rewards elite restarts.
Even when a team (like Stewart-Haas) is struggling, their drivers are still putting in the work to maximize every race and result.
To that point, Kevin Harvick has arguably been the best driver this season, with nothing to show for it. Think about it in these terms:
Cole Custer, Aric Almirola and Chase Briscoe are 25th, 27th and 28th in championship points. Harvick is eighth. That’s Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers putting in their best work despite a rules enforcement that has limited their potential so much. It’s so reminiscent of Harvick’s final years at Richard Childress Racing when the organization was providing him top-15 cars that he still won 2-3 times with per year. And as soon as he left for Stewart-Haas, he won the championship. This is still the same group that won nine races last year, and they will be dangerous once they figure it out.
Remember Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell, initially presented as a fluke superspeedway winner, driving for an underdog team that emphasizes Daytona and Talladega? Well, he finished top-10 at both the Daytona Road Course and Homestead-Miami Speedwayy, too. He’s an elite superspeedway racer and road course ace. They’ll struggle a little bit on the short tracks, but his PEER is top-10 in the Cup Series.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is putting together his absolute best season in the Cup Series right now, very much delivering on the expectation generated by his two Xfinity Series championships a decade ago. He’s 14th in points for JTG Daugherty Racing and has seemingly solved his biggest problem from the past decade in crashing out of races. He has been running at the finish of every race and was one more restart away from potentially upsetting the Cup Series on dirt at Bristol.
Austin Dillon has flown under the radar for a former Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600 winner but is silently 12th in points. He finishes races and takes what the car gives him. Similar to how his playoff run began last year, he’s taking what the car gives him, a valuable trait for a fringe playoff candidate.
Meanwhile, Hamlin, Truex and Logano are maximizing their elite cars so no surprise there. Hendrick drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron are also excelling as surprise contenders. It’s not so much that Larson and Byron weren’t capable, but Larson had been away for over a year and Byron had taken his lumps since graduating to the Cup Series. Larson has finally been unleashed in an elite car at the highest level and is delivering on the hype from the past decade with Hendrick. Byron has been viewed as a prodigy himself but is just now starting to put it all together reunited with crew chief Rudy Fugle.
Maybe it’s not The Best Season ever, but the 2021 campaign has been a lot of fun just from a diversity of track types through nine races alone.
Without naming the venues, just look at the season from this standpoint:
Superspeedway Road Course Abrasive Intermediate Smooth Intermediate One Miler Abrasive Intermediate Dirt Track Short Track Short Track
There has to be some correlation to the widely diverse schedule this season to the perceived parity to start the season. One team hasn’t been able to run away in terms of wins, simply because no one has been allowed to settle into a sweet spot with their preferred track types.
There won’t be another dirt track, of course, but this weekend is a superspeedway and then an intermediate and then Darlington — which is unique to itself.
There are four more road courses remaining in the regular season, which itself will end with another superspeedway.
The 2021 season never feels redundant, and that’s something NASCAR has suffered from in previous years before now.
Credit to them on that.
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