MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA - OCTOBER 31: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, (L) and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, talk backstage of pre-race ceremonies prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images) | Getty Images
Logan Riely | Getty Images

Joe Gibbs Racing competition director: ‘We’re definitely the underdog’

Two teams evenly split the Championship 4 — Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, two drivers apiece — but their 2021 season stats aren’t so even.

Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott represent Hendrick Motorsports, while Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. hail from Joe Gibbs Racing. Larson (nine) and Elliott (two) alone combine for 11 of the 35 race wins this season. Hamlin (two) and Truex (four) are responsible for six together — almost half the amount.

“Usually, a lot of times, JGR might be the favorite going into a championship race,” said Wally Brown, Joe Gibbs Racing’s competition director. “I think we’re definitely the underdogs. We have to beat the guy, Kyle Larson, that has won so many races, been so dominant this year. Then you have Chase, the reigning champion at this track. We’re definitely the underdog.”

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According to the latest odds from BetMGM, Larson (7-5) is the favorite to win the championship after Sunday’s finale at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Elliott (11-4) posts the next-best odds, with Hamlin (4-1) and Truex (9-2) following.

“As far as us going in with the advantage, personally I don’t see it that way,” said Jeff Andrews, Hendrick Motorsports’ general manager and executive vice president. “There may be statistically you could make that argument. From ourselves and how we’re approaching it, we’re going out there to race with Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the best teams in the history of this sport.”

Joe Gibbs Racing owns five NASCAR Cup Series championships. Hendrick Motorsports boasts 13.

Hamlin leads the title-eligible crop with two career wins (spring 2012 and fall 2019) at the 1-mile track in Arizona. Truex and Elliott have one victory each, both coming in the two most recent events held there. Truex won the spring race earlier this season; Elliott won last year’s season finale. Larson, meanwhile, has not won in the desert.

Overall this season, the four drivers lead the series in laps led. Larson (2,474), though, has nearly a 1,000-lap advantage over Hamlin (1,502). Elliott (858) doesn’t break into the thousands and has the third-best mark. Truex (793) rounds the group out.

“We just don’t have the raw speed they’ve had this year, to be honest,” Brown said. “We’re trying to figure that out. They’ve just beaten us, just faster everywhere. I think for us, we’re going to have to be able to do our best job, run a very clean race, have good pit stops, execute well. Hopefully we can run with them.”