Did you notice?… Chase Elliott out of the game in 2023? NASCAR’s most popular driver has become the sport’s most daunting performer, winless in a Hendrick Motorsports program that has produced two top contenders this season in William Byron and Kyle Larson.
It didn’t help that Elliott missed six starts through injury and a seventh after a one-race suspension for throwing Denny Hamlin at the Coca-Cola 600 in May. But the #9 car just didn’t show the speed needed to drive ahead all season long. Elliott led just 38 laps all year, no more than 18 in any race and posted an average start of just 18.7, the worst of his full-time Cup career.
Even if Elliott makes the playoffs, matching last year’s performance will be nearly impossible. He is coming off a season where he led the series in wins (five) and laps led (857) while racking up the most playoff bonus points (31) of any driver.
The thing is… Elliott’s fall is not unique. In a sport where the margin between first and 30th is very slim, the days when one driver can dominate the series for a long time are over. We have yet to experience a back-to-back champion during the current 16-driver, multi-round elimination format, which makes what Jimmie Johnson did from 2006-2010 even more special.
Forget five consecutive titles. I think pilots would only kill for a two-year period in which they could still have sustained success. I took a look back at 10 years of the current playoff format and how a driver with the most wins performed the following year. As you will see, in almost all cases they could not sustain their success.
Most wins in 2013: Matt Kenseth, 7 years old
2014 Kenseth: No wins.
Kenseth entered the first year of the elimination-style format on fire, narrowly missing out on a second title in a one-on-one with Johnson the previous year. Instead, his second year with Joe Gibbs Racing turned into a second slump, with the three-car team combining for just two race wins while Kenseth was left out of victory lane altogether. His 529 laps led that year would be the fewest for him until his final year with JGR in 2017.
Most wins in 2014: Brad Keselowski, 6 years old
2015 Keselowski: 1 win
Keselowski missed out on Championship 4 in 2014, a theme we’ve seen a little too often in the most dominant driver of the year. The unease carried over into a 2015 season where Keselowski and Team Penske won only once, a race at Auto Club Speedway in which he led just one lap (a debris warning late snatched the victory from Kurt Busch). With only nine top-five finishes, Keselowski was 1,184 laps ahead, but even that total is misleading; nearly half of that total came in the last four races of the year, where the No. 2 team made a valiant effort to advance to the knockout stages.
Most wins in 2015: Joey Logano, 6 years old
Logan 2016: 3 wins
Logano was one of the few to break this ugly pattern, reaching the Championship 4 in 2016. He was in position to win the title on the penultimate round until contact with Carl Edwards derailed things. for both of them. But while posting 26 top-10 finishes, his total wins did decrease by 50% with laps led (from 1,431 to 703).
Most wins in 2016: Jimmy Johnson, 5 years old
Johnson 2017: 3 wins
Johnson’s 2017 started off pretty strong, taking three wins in the first 13 races. Who would have guessed these would be the last of his Cup career? The seven-time champion only got one top five finish beyond that, a third at Dover Motor Speedway in September, and entered a slump from which he always did not recover.
Most wins in 2017: Martin Truex Jr., 8 years old
Truex 2018: 4 wins
Again, an exception to the rule here as Truex made Championship 4, narrowly losing the title race to Logano. But its win tally was cut in half and Truex’s single-seater team Furniture Row Racing was forced to shut down after losing most of its mainline sponsorship. So second place was really the first loser, I guess?
Most wins in 2018: Kevin Harvick, 8 years old
Harvick 2019: 4 wins
Harvick continued his Championship 4 appearance streak (2017-19) but felt a step behind eventual champion Kyle Busch. The consistency was there, although he racked up a season-best 26 top-10 results and was the best example of maintaining speed for several years in this format.
Most wins in 2019: Martin Truex Jr., 7 years old
Truex 2020: 1 win
Truex went through a year of transition in 2020, losing longtime team manager Cole Pearn to retirement. The team took some time to adjust to new James Small wrench and made several unusual mistakes, leading to the veteran’s worst result and overall performance since 2016.
Most wins in 2020: Kevin Harvick, 9 years old
Harvick 2021: 0 wins
This performance is the child of the poster to fall under this format. Harvick had a few good shots at Martinsville Speedway after winning the 4 championship in 2020 and ultimately having the best season of his 20+ year Cup career. Instead, the blow the team took in collapsing in the Round of 16 created an unease around this team in 2021 that never lifted. Harvick’s lap total was down from 1,531 to 217, his top five finishes were cut in half (20 to 10) and he was kicked out of victory lane for the first time since 2009’s Yikes.
Most wins in 2021: Kyle Larson, 10 years old
2022 Larsson: 3 wins
You’re bound to be disappointed after one of the most impressive seasons of the modern era (1972 to present). Larson’s first title was difficult to replicate, with the No. 5 team never enjoying the kind of consistency or luck they had acquired the previous year. Leading laps fell from a whopping 2,581 to just 635 while Larson’s DNF total rose to seven.
So here is. NASCAR’s last decade has produced a revolving door of who’s ahead, with parity making a long stretch of dominance nearly impossible. So, maybe we should have expected Elliott to take a step back in 2023. The question now for the #9 team is… where is the ground?
Did you notice?… Quick shots before taking off…
- The conventional wisdom of the past few months has been that Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. will return to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2024. Hamlin has made it clear he wants to end his racing career with JGR, while Truex is battling elbow to neck at elbow with Byron to become the number one seed in this year’s playoffs. But didn’t we say the same about Kyle Busch last year?
- Every passing day with these unsigned pilots creates uncertainty within a JGR organization that has already suffered its fair share of trauma over the past 12 months. As I dig deeper at CBS Sports this week, I feel like Truex is looking at his recent success and openly wondering if staying on top would be better than staying too long. If I’m steering the ship at JGR, I’m watching these quotes on Monday and I’m much more worried than before that Truex comes out and wins.
- Remember how last year brought us to the precipice of 17 regular season winners? Too bad for that in 2023. We still have six races to go before the playoffs and most we could have 17 eligible winners at this point (remember, Shane van Gisbergen doesn’t count). That means even Ricky Stenhouse Jr., this year’s surprise Daytona 500 champion, could be locked into the playoffs as early as this weekend. Who would have thought?
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