Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of four stories examining why each driver could win the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Tuesday: Kyle Larson
Wednesday: Chase Elliott
Thursday: Martin Truex Jr.
Friday: Denny Hamlin
Chase Elliott will win the 2021 championship because …
If another driver wants it, they have to go through him.
It’s a rarity in sports for a defending champion to return to the title-deciding event and not be the odds-on favorite, but here we are just a few days out from the championship-decider and Elliott sits at 11-4 to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson’s 7-5. Sure, that’s understandable given that Larson has nine wins to Elliott’s two — but Elliott was the runner-up in four of the No. 5’s trips to Victory Lane. It’s conceivable that perhaps Elliott didn’t take his teammate to the limit as much as he would have if, say, the No. 11 Toyota was in front of him. Maybe that distribution of wins is a bit misleading, maybe not.
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Either way, Larson usurped Elliott as Hendrick’s golden boy this year, and it seems silly to think Elliott won’t be carrying that chip on his shoulder entering Sunday. He’ll be out to prove he’s the defending champion for a reason, and he doesn’t care who’s standing in his way of another one, under the same roof or not.
As the two most favored drivers entering the race — with essentially the same equipment — there’s a strong chance they’ll be battling for the lead at some point, and it could be in the closing laps for the checkered flag and the title. If that’s the case? Toss the whole teammate thing out the window. It’s on. I don’t think Elliott would even hesitate to move the 5, and forget about the 11 or 19 — those are auto-punts should he be presented the opportunity on the final lap.
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But what if Hamlin and Truex bring the fastest equipment? Definitely possible, but Hendrick probably has the edge here.
Martin Truex Jr. won at Phoenix earlier this year (Elliott was fifth), but the 25-year-old rode a wave of momentum last fall to claim a grandfather clock and his first Championship 4 bid at Martinsville before running roughshod over the competition in the finale with 153 laps led en route to the title win in the desert. He and crew chief Alan Gustafson will be leaning on those notes heavily, but that’s not the only thing in the No. 9 team’s favor. An argument could be made that Elliott had a better overall season than his championship campaign, with a better average finish and already more lead-lap finishes than a year ago with one race remaining. That’s in addition to the added experience that another 35 races have provided the youngest driver in the Championship 4.
In short, the defending champion is more seasoned, enters the weekend with something to prove and won’t be afraid to show anybody out there his bumper, even if it’ll make Hendrick teammate debriefs a bit awkward for a while. He’s simply made for this moment.
Elliott has a tremendous shot to become the sport’s first back-to-back champion since a certain seven-time former teammate of his accomplished the feat with five straight from 2006-10, and he just might do it.