Since the NASCAR playoffs began, Joe Gibbs Racing have shown the most speed of any team. Are they emerging as the championship favorite?
Much of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season has been dominated by two organizations: Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. The teams have combined for 19 wins in the first 28 races, with all eight of their drivers winning at least once.
Hendrick Motorsports were the best organization in the regular season, particularly thanks to Kyle Larson and the #5 team. Between the spring race at Darlington Raceway in early May and the doubleheader weekend at Pocono Raceway in late June, Larson only once finished outside of the top two — in a race he was one turn away from winning.
Hendrick Motorsports have still looked strong late in the regular season, but they have not been dominant like they were in the late spring and early summer. Other organizations such as Joe Gibbs Racing have caught up to them.
Following Larson’s third straight points win (fourth straight overall win) at Nashville Superspeedway in June, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller commented on whether NASCAR would further scrutinize Hendrick Motorsports in the inspection process because of their dominance.
“It does, both externally and internally. We certainly want to make sure we’re not missing something in our process, so not that we don’t look hard at every single car that comes through there, but when you start to have a dominant team, definitely the lens get focused a little bit more on the microscope.”
Since that statement from Miller, Hendrick Motorsports have won three times, with two of those wins coming on road courses. Alex Bowman won at Pocono Raceway when Larson had a flat tire and hit the wall on the last lap, Chase Elliott won at Road America and Larson won at Watkins Glen International.
Meanwhile, Joe Gibbs Racing have also won three times since then, but two of those wins have come in the last two weeks to open up the round of 16 of the playoffs. Denny Hamlin won at Darlington Raceway and Martin Truex, Jr. won at Richmond Raceway.
Most importantly, these wins have come with the low-downforce, 750-horsepower package, the same package that is set to be run in the round of 8 finale at Martinsville Speedway and in the Championship 4 season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
At Richmond Raceway, Joe Gibbs Racing finished 1-2-3 with Truex, Hamlin and Christopher Bell, respectively. Kyle Busch battled back to finish in ninth place after a pit road speeding penalty, but he likely would have finished in the top five had he avoided the mistake.
Busch had overcome an earlier equipment interference penalty to run at the front before the late speeding penalty mired him back in the pack.
Looking at the playoff picture, Hamlin and Truex are locked into the round of 12 with their wins. Bell and Busch sit 17 and 13 points above the round of 12 cut line, respectively. Though not safe, they both can advance if they avoid big mistakes in the round of 16 finale at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Meanwhile, two Hendrick Motorsports drivers are on the wrong side of the round of 12 cut line. Bowman is tied with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch for the final round of 12 spot, though Busch currently holds the tiebreaker. William Byron finds himself in an 18-point hole following two bad races to start the round of 16.
Hendrick Motorsports are in serious jeopardy of at least one of their four drivers being eliminated in the opening round, which is much earlier than they had expected entering the postseason.
Larson and Elliott remain among the favorites to reach the Championship 4, but the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have shown more winning speed as of late. They are peaking at the right time, which is a must to win the championship in the current playoff format.