After claiming his first NASCAR Cup Series championship last year, Chase Elliott made sure to let the media know there would be no title “defense” on his mind for 2021.
“There is no defending,” he said on Feb. 8. “We need to be on offense. We need to keep pushing. I think if you’re back on your heels and trying to protect something, I don’t think your mind is in the right place.
“We want more. We’re not trying to play defense. We just simply want more. That needs to be our outlook and keep it as simple as that.”
Things started out well for Elliott with a runner-up finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. The next week on the Daytona road course, he showed that he remains the series’ top driver in that discipline, even if the result didn’t show it.
That 21st-place finish, however, started a five-race downturn that included four finishes of 13th or worse and a DNF at his home track in Atlanta.
Elliott stopped the slide with a 10th-place finish on the dirt at Bristol. And there’s an argument to be made that there are better weeks ahead for him.
Not only have both earned wins, they’re also among the top five in many loop metrics.
Larson is tops in laps led (379), much of that coming from a dominant run at Atlanta that didn’t end with a victory. He’s also leading in fastest laps run (237), and quality passes (446), which are passes made inside the top 15 under green flag conditions.
In average running position, Larson (9.5) and Byron (10.7) are fourth and fifth respectively. Byron is also fifth in laps led (129) and fastest laps run (99).
That Larson was able to quickly re-adapt to Cup racing wasn’t surprising. Byron, on the other hand, appears to have made a big step toward becoming a weekly fixture at the front (something he stated as his goal back in December). Keep in mind that through the first seven races last year, he had an average finish of 22.1 and average running position of 15.9.
Everything but the W
Last year, Denny Hamlin was the clear No. 1 at Joe Gibbs Racing. But while he and the No. 11 team have carried that performance into 2021, they don’t have a win to show for it.
Perhaps that’s why last Monday’s near-miss on the dirt at Bristol appeared to sting Hamlin a little more.
He hasn’t just been banking strong finishes (series-high six top fives; none worse than 11th). He’s also been banking stage points at near-perfect efficiency.
He’s scored points in 13 of 14 stages with three stage wins. In the 13 stages where he’s scored, he earned a top-five finish in all but one. The outlier was a ninth-place finish in the second stage at Atlanta; he went on to finish fourth in the race.
Hamlin is also tops in several other statistics, including average finish (4.7), average running position (5.9), and laps inside the top 15 (1,549 in total; 91.4%).
It’s added up to a 58-point lead, nearly a full race’s worth, over Joey Logano in the regular season standings.
Through seven races last year, Hamlin was eighth in the regular season standings. But he was already in the playoffs with two wins.
After the Easter break, two of his strongest tracks historically are next: Martinsville Speedway (five Cup wins, avg. finish of 9.9) and Richmond Raceway (three Cup wins, avg. finish of 9.2.). However, Hamlin hasn’t won at Martinsville since March 2015 and Richmond since September 2016.
A downturn in performance across the board have left Stewart-Haas Racing in a diminished state after seven races.
Kevin Harvick sits 10th in the playoff standings and has five top 10 finishes in seven races. But the usual speed of the No. 4 team has been missing. Harvick hasn’t led since the Daytona 500 (17 laps) and has only scored points in five of 14 stages.
It’s still better than where his three teammates are right now. Cole Custer, rookie Chase Briscoe and Aric Almirola are all outside the top 20 in points and have failed to record a single top-10 finish between them. The trio’s best finishes are a pair of 11th-place results, one from Custer, one from Almirola.
But while Custer and Briscoe have at least avoided any DNFs, Almirola has already suffered three – the same number he took over all of last season.
Custer, Briscoe and Almirola, like their champion teammate, have suffered from a lack of speed but in a far more acute way.
All three drivers are ranked outside the top 25 drivers in green flag speed – Custer in 26th, Almirola in 27th, and Briscoe in 30th. Even with his own issues, Harvick ranks ninth in this statistic.
Hit or miss for Kyle Busch
Coming off perhaps his best race of the season at Atlanta, Kyle Busch had to soldier to a 17th-place finish at Bristol after pitting early for overheating and then getting involved in a multi-car incident shortly after the race’s midway point.
It continued a string of up-and-down results over the first seven races. While Busch has earned three top 10s, he’s also had four finishes of 14th or worse.
Busch also was inconsistent through seven races last year. He had four top fives, but also had three finishes of 15th or worse. As we know, he didn’t get to Victory Lane until October at Texas after he’d been eliminated from the playoffs.
Speed-wise, Busch has been decent this season (ranked seventh in green flag speed). However, his average running position of 13.9 lags behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin (5.9) and Martin Truex Jr. (9.1), and is only slightly ahead of another teammate, Christopher Bell (14.6).
It’s all left him in the middle of an emerging playoff “bubble battle.” Only 15 points separate him in 13th place and the first driver out in 17th, Chris Buescher.
Unless the No. 18 team gets hot coming out of the Easter break, Busch may be in that group for a while.