After a quarter of a season, both Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott are equally winless; however, that’s the only common denominator between the two, both Championship 4 participants last season, with the latter claiming the series title.
Despite a lead lost in the waning laps at Richmond, Hamlin remained steadfast in the belief of his team, which presently carries the most statistically productive results-getter among all drivers, the fastest car across all tracks and 48 or more points earned in seven of their nine starts.
Lacking Hamlin’s more effective effort, Elliott’s 2021 season is a title defense gone noticeably limp, a nine-race showcase (10 if you count the driver’s botched attempt at a bump-and-run on Ryan Blaney during the season-opening Busch Clash exhibition) in which the driver, crew chief and team appear wounded.
Elliott’s season hit a high point two weeks ago at Martinsville, his own second-place finish after which, void of any extroverted energy, he articulated relief.
“Every week I feel like it’s been one thing or another, a bad run or just whatever,” Elliott said. “No damage, we didn’t break anything. Everything was just smooth. It was uneventful. That’s the days you have to have to compete for wins, ultimately. Some of that is in your hands, some of it’s not.”
The 25-year-old is the only winless driver at Hendrick Motorsports this year, but the why of it all isn’t readily clear. The perception — that the team is failing or the driver is lost — isn’t entirely the reality.
For Elliott, the only driver last season to rank among the top five in Production in Equal Equipment Rating, restart retention rate, surplus passing value and speed, well-roundedness in key statistical categories is the norm, perhaps now the expectation. This season, it’s a trait that’s carried over to his team as a whole in measures of track position procurement:
In terms of reliability in attaining track position, Elliott is largely the same driver he was during his 2020 championship campaign, albeit with a slight drop in positional net via restarts (-0.32 per attempt, down from +0.11). Alan Gustafson, the crew chief who informs Elliott’s green-flag pit cycle (GFPC) offense and defense, has improved significantly over a season in which his biggest impact was mechanical, not strategic. Against other strategists, he ranks in the 59th and 69th percentiles, respectively, providing a bigger safety net for his diligent long-run passer.
The driver has contributed an adjusted pass differential 58 positions beyond his statistical expectation, while the crew chief is responsible for a three-position net gain. Omitting a 33-position net loss for damage repair at Las Vegas, Elliott’s pit crew has helped gain him 10 spots under caution-flag conditions this season. Inherently, there’s nothing blatant to point to in regards to execution, which means their irrelevance among the elite is, at least superficially, a mechanical cause.
This team ranked first in speed across all 36 races last season and on 750-horsepower tracks specifically and, based on common running whereabouts, underachieved, leaving as many as five potential victories on the table. But speed itself is the issue this year, though not in the manner one would expect.
Elliott’s fastest laps in the Daytona 500, the Daytona road course race and Las Vegas ranked first among all drivers. His best laps ranked second at Homestead and third in Martinsville and Richmond. Across those six races, he averaged a 10.7-place finish.
For varying reasons, some publicized, the elite speed being produced in optimal conditions failed to sustain for the entirety of the race in most cases:
To wit, what’s wrong with Elliott and Gustafson exists here, in the difference between the team’s top-end speed and the speed being sustained. Between broken parts, damage or a straightforward imbalance in handling, a dip is present, and any small dip in performance at the highest level creates difficulty.
While having industry-best top-end speed, they also rank sixth in average median lap time overall and seventh on 750-horsepower tracks specifically. Given the first/first splits in similar speed categories last season, these represent jarring dips, potentially symbolizing the rise of Joe Gibbs Racing and Elliott’s competition internally at Hendrick, namely William Byron (ranked second in overall median lap time) and Kyle Larson (ranked fifth). The six drivers ranked ahead of Elliott in median lap time rank on 750-horsepower tracks hold a combined six wins this year, brands of sustainability and success he lacks.
Stock car racing, like other genres of motorsport, tends to reward those with fast cars for an entire race. Since the inception of loop data in 2005, the fastest machine in a given event wins roughly 40% of the time. In 2020, speed ranking with flag-to-flag influence was the metric most correlative to finish; thus, it’s probably not a coincidence that Elliott is winless with his quantifiable speed occupying such an inconsistent space.
This was supposed to have been a season — with a schedule featuring seven road course races and an increase in 750-horsepower tracks — firmly in line with what Elliott does well. Still early days, the hypothesized advantage has yet to manifest, but whereas growth atop a championship-winning foundation was the initial thought, it seems the schedule could soon act as a much-needed crutch.
This weekend’s race in Talladega offers Elliott a chance to win on a track where’s he previously won, in a car perennially optimized for fast laps within the draft. The five other regular-season road course races, a track type on which he’s won four of the last five points-paying races, will morph into must-win situations if the disconnect between top-end speed and median speed on normal ovals isn’t nipped in the bud.
Regardless, Elliott isn’t out of the championship hunt, but without the speed he flashed early last season, an understood indicator of the team’s ability and intentions, it’s clear his playoff march will require some guesswork and, potentially, a much different path than the one he blazed.