By: Ashley McCubbin
Out of the seven years that NASCAR has utilized the round style playoffs, Hendrick Motorsports has placed a driver in the Championship 4 on three occasions, including winning the title last season with Chase Elliott.
The 2021 campaign looks to be one of their best opportunities to repeat that, as halfway through the regular season and all four of their competitors – Kyle Larson, Elliott, William Byron, and Alex Bowman are locked into the playoffs with a win.
Entering every season, the focus for every team is being able to accomplish that feat, and the earlier they do so is better.
“It feels great to have the wins because you can try some things before the Playoffs,” Rick Hendrick told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Right now we want to win every race we can. The momentum of winning, that carries into the chase. We don’t want to just try too many different things. I’m sure we’ll try more when we get to the Playoffs.
“We’re sitting in a good spot. Again, we got to keep doing what we’re doing. You got to have the momentum when you get in the Playoffs because you got to make all the rounds. As it gets closer, I think we’ll probably try some stuff. The deal is to win and be competitive every week if you want to win the championship.”
As evident in years past, bonus points can help you get to the Championship 4, and the only way to get those is by winning stages and races. Though capturing checkered flags is the most important in knowing a win no matter when in a round gets you to the next one.
Alex Bowman is so far leading his teammates in that department with two trips to victory lane, while William Byron is the king of consistency with just one result outside the top-10 – an 11th at COTA. Kyle Larson, meanwhile, has the most momentum on his side following a runner-up. Despite only one win, he has led laps every week, including more than 40 in six of the 14 races.
Larson also has a very high confidence in his race team right now, saying they have a lot of strengths while struggling to find weaknesses when asked.
“There’s areas I’m sure that we need to be better, but nothing really stands out to me right now. I think track to track really. Like today, I mean, my restarts were horrible. That’s an area where if we were to be racing in the rain again, I would need to be way more aggressive,” he said. “But, yeah, we’ve been doing a great job. I feel like Cliff has been making great calls. Our pit crew has been really strong all year long. I feel like I’ve been doing a good job behind the wheel. Knock on wood, I haven’t had any big mistakes here in the last couple months that I can think of where I did kind of early in the year, where I feel like I cost myself some good finishes.
“No, it’s been good. We just look to carry forward this momentum and try and put together a good race each week.”
Carrying the momentum week-to-week is also the focus for Elliott, and remaining focused on their goals as a race team. Whether coming off the win at COTA or a solid top-five, the defending champion knows they need to keep performances coming on a weekly basis and finding ways to improve.
“At the end of the day the only opinions that matter, that reflect our performance and what we do on track, is our team and what we believe internally,” he commented. “That’s how we’ve always approached our racing at the 9 camp. That’s how we’ll always do it. We’re just focused on the opinions and the people that matter to us, the people that can make a difference, make us either go fast on Sundays or not. Those of the rest of everybody else that have an opinion, they don’t matter really at the end of the day.”