NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2021 NASCAR Preseason Power Rankings, No. 2: Chase Elliott

The champ is here! The champ is here!

The triumphant 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott will strap behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet for his sixth full-time season at Hendrick Motorsports. With teammate Jimmie Johnson‘s departure from the team to go NTT IndyCar Series racing, it is looking like the 25-year-old Elliott will be thrust into the leadership role at Hendrick as the team’s longest-tenured driver.

While he has big shoes to fill, there seems to be little worry and much more optimism as he prepared for his title defense. There is little change of scenery as his team embarks on the 2021 trail. Veteran crew chief Alan Gustafson and Elliott’s longtime backer Napa Auto Parts remain in their respective places, providing comfortable stability for the organization.

A Look Back

Throughout much of the 2020 campaign, Elliott was not often perceived as a major championship threat. Overshadowed by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, who were gobbling up wins by the bundle, Elliott’s quiet steadiness prevailed. Although he only picked up two regular-season wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Daytona International Speedway road course, consistency was key for the No. 9 team. This included eight top-12 finishes in the final nine races before the postseason.

However, it was the playoffs where Elliott shined. He picked up three victories in the final five races, including a win-or-go-home scenario at Martinsville Speedway and the championship race at Phoenix Raceway. But Elliott needed all three statement victories to nab his first career championship.

Promising Venues

Road courses, road courses, road courses.

Unstoppable can be a rather deceiving term in the English language, often predicated with hidden caveats or tricky deception. However, to simply put it, Elliott has been unstoppable on road courses. In fact, the second-generation star has not lost a Cup race on a road course since June 2019. That’s pretty incredible.

That probably means the rest of the field is in a lot more trouble. The 2021 schedule will feature a whopping seven road circuits compared to two in 2020. It is safe to say that Elliott is the odds-on favorite for every single one.

Aside from the twists and turns, Elliott has also been potent at tracks 1 mile in length or smaller. Don’t be surprised if he nabs a few wins in 2021 at a venue like Phoenix or Bristol Motor Speedway.

However, like much of the Chevrolet contingent, mile-and-a-half tracks have been tricky. A lack of speed and general durability compared to the Ford and Toyota camps have put the Chevrolets behind the moment they unload the truck. If Elliott wants to be the title favorite, he will need to find some speed at larger facilities.

2021 Scenarios

If indeed Chevrolet does find some more speed, it’s not unreasonable to say that Elliott has as good of shot as anyone to defend his 2020 title. 2021 will be the second year for Chevrolet’s current Camaro trim level and the fourth overall for the Camaro. If Chevy can continue to learn and improve its Camaro as more and more data comes in, look for Elliott to be strong. Very, very strong.

On the flip side, Elliott has been prone to slumps and his fair share of bad luck. While he is almost a shoo-in to win at least once on a road course and make the playoffs, don’t be surprised if he suffers an epic collapse in the postseason, as was the case in 2017 and 2019.

Still, in typical Elliott family fashion, he has proven to be wise beyond his years. Although he is his own worse critic, many in the racing community are already predicting a new dynasty is emerging. With new teammate Kyle Larson and returning drivers Alex Bowman and William Byron, it is certainly plausible that 2021 could the year that Hendrick reestablishes its stranglehold on the Cup Series.

Outlook

The NASCAR season has not even started, but Elliott has already been on track. Although it was a lackluster IMSA debut, Elliott has already gained valuable track time while competing in a DPi Prototype during the Rolex 24 at Daytona last month.

In addition to his runs in the famed Snowball Derby and Chili Bowl, Elliott seems to be fresh and spry. It is a brand new season, but NASCAR’s favorite son looks to be launching into the realm of stock car greatness.

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