Will NASCAR’s first race at a short track Sunday break up the domination of the top teams or just be more of the same?
Since the Cup season resumed May 17 at Darlington, the top organizations — Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing have dominated.
Each organization has won a race in the last four. Those four organizations have combined for 85% of the top-five finishes and 67.5% of the top 10s scored since the season restarted.
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Both totals are increases compared to the first four races of the season before COVID-19 halted the season. Before the break, the four organizations combined for 65% of the top-five finishes and 62.5% of the top-10 results.
“I feel like it’s been a continuation from the beginning of the season,” Chase Elliott said after his Thursday night Charlotte victory of the dominance of the same group. “I feel like all the same contenders are contending now as to who was contending before the break.
“I almost get the sense that we’re still working on some of the parts and pieces and cars that we had before we had two months off, so I’m really curious to see how these next two weeks progress because people are going to get better, and I think some of the things they’ve been trying and working on they’re actually going to have time to implement to their cars. We have to stay hungry and stay after it.”
Alan Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief, told NBC Sports in March that because the rules are “much more stringent than they’ve been in the past” that “there’s not a whole lot of places to go and find performance.”
In anticipation of the sport going to the Next Gen car next season, NASCAR put a freeze on new parts for cars this season. NASCAR has since delayed the Next Gen car’s debut until the 2022 season.
With Sunday’s race at Bristol completing a stretch of five races in two weeks, teams have been challenged to improve performance as they prepare cars in such a short period. With four Cup races scheduled between June 1-21, teams should have more time to fine-tune performance.
“There’s certainly room for everyone to improve, and I have every expectation that our competitors will,” Gustafson said after Thursday night’s Charlotte race.
Denny Hamlin, who won the second Darlington race, said it could be some time before there’s a change in which teams are the strongest.
“You’re not able to make huge changes because the cars are essentially locked in with all the new kind of ordinances on new parts and whatnot,” Hamlin said. “So you’ve kind of got what you’ve got. You will make some developments and you will find some things in aerodynamics through the year, but I think that you’d better have your stuff together come early to mid‑August.”
If so, that comes only a couple of weeks before the playoffs are scheduled to begin Sept. 6 at Darlington with the Southern 500.
That could mean that many teams are chasing the Hendrick Motorsports cars this summer. While Joe Gibbs Racing has had the highest percentage of its cars in the top 10 since the season resumed (27.5%), the Hendrick cars have been viewed as the dominant ones.
Hendrick cars have won 44.4% of the stages since the season restarted and combined to lead more than a third of the laps run in the past four races.
“Honestly, I think the best group out there right now is Hendrick,” Ryan Blaney said after Thursday night’s race. “They have really great speed right now on the mile‑and‑a‑halfs or the bigger tracks. I’ve seen it.
“They’ve kind of had some unfortunate circumstances. … The Penske group has capitalized on (those) at a couple of them tracks, but Hendrick is really strong. I feel like we’re close with our group. We’ve just got to find a little bit more.”