CREW CHIEF: Alan Gustafson
TEAM: Hendrick Motorsports
POINTS: Fourth in NASCAR Cup Series
WINS: Two (Circuit of the Americas, Road America)
LAPS LED: 952
TOP 5s: 15
TOP 10s: 21
QUALIFIED FIRST: Twice (Daytona road course, Atlanta II)
WHAT WENT RIGHT: The 2020 Cup Series champion kept his other mantle as the series’ king of the road courses, posting both of his 2021 wins on twisty tracks.
His victory in the inaugural Cup event at Circuit of the Americas put Hendrick Motorsports equal with Petty Enterprises for most wins in Cup history at 268 (Elliott’s teammate, Kyle Larson, broke the tie next race at the Coca-Cola 600).
But while poor weather and some resulting heavy crashes cast a pall over the COTA event, Elliott’s triumph at Road America was much more ideal: An impressive comeback from a poor starting position, in front of a monster crowd, on a picture-perfect Fourth of July.
In the playoffs, Elliott was one of multiple title contenders to suffer in the opener at Darlington. But a gutsy fourth-place finish at Richmond helped him advance out of the Round of 16 despite a clash at Bristol with Kevin Harvick.
The Elliott-Harvick feud culminated in the Round of 12 finale at the Charlotte Roval – with Elliott coming out on top, much to the delight of his legion of fans. Elliott went on to advance to the Championship 4 for a second straight year.
From a full-season perspective, Elliott largely maintained consistency from his run to the title in 2020: He equaled his 15 top-five finishes, slightly improved his average finish (11.4, bettering his mark of 11.7 in 2020) and had just one fewer top-10 finish. And while his two wins were down from the five he bagged in 2020, Elliott posted an impressive seven runner-up finishes.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Facing teammate Larson, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. for the Cup title at Phoenix, Elliott had the best short-run speed of the Championship 4 and led 94 laps. But the critical final pit stop with 28 laps to go didn’t work out in Elliott’s favor, as he slipped one spot from third to fourth – while teammate Larson vaulted from fourth to the lead. With track position so vital, Elliott couldn’t catch up and ultimately finished fifth in the race, which gave him fourth in the final Cup standings.
Elliott only had three DNFs all year, but notably, one of them was a disqualification. Following the inaugural Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway, Elliott’s car was found to have five lug nuts not secure in post-race inspection. The DQ left Elliott with a 39th-place finish and one single point; a 13th-place finish with 38 points scored was wiped out.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2022: The debut of the Next Gen car is a potentially major wildcard, but Elliott and the No. 9 team have the ability to keep championship-caliber form for a third consecutive season – or, should they lose it over a bad stretch of races, find a way to recapture it.