With William Byron leading 111 laps this past weekend at the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, he became the third Hendrick Motorsports driver to win in the first five NASCAR Cup Series races of the 2022 season. Conspicuously absent from the list of winners across the Hendrick roster is Chase Elliott. As NASCAR’s current most popular driver, many are wondering why he hasn’t won or been as competitive as some of his teammates have been as of late, particularly with Kyle Larson coming off a championship season where he won 10 races to Elliott’s two wins in 2021. Given his tenure with crew chief Alan Gustafson since his arrival as a full-time driver in 2016, might it be time to make a change atop the pit box of the No. 9 NAPA Camaro? This week, Mark Kristl and Vito Pugliese square off in another installment of 2-Headed Monster.
The championship is not on a road course
A crew chief change is needed in the No. 9 camp. Elliott is undeniably talented with one Cup Series championship already on his resume. But since his 2020 championship, Elliott has only dominated at road courses. Spoiler alert: Phoenix Raceway, site of the championship race, is not a road course.
Of his 13 Cup victories, seven have been on road courses. Of his wins over the last two years, Elliott won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix Raceway. The other wins were at road courses.
This year, there is only one road course in the Cup playoffs — the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, which hosts the Round of 12 finale.
Otherwise, Elliott must regain his magic on ovals to make the Championship 4 for the third straight season.
Yes, Elliott has won at other playoff tracks, but as he won the 2020 title on the strength of five wins, the field has caught him.
At his team Hendrick Motorsports, Elliott is no longer the top driver. Kyle Larson holds that honor. In addition, Elliott is currently the only Hendrick driver without a victory thus far this season.
By no means is Elliott in danger of missing the playoffs. He leads the points and has not finished outside the top 10 in points in his Cup career.
Yet the Next Gen car has changed the NASCAR landscape. Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric, two drivers who did not make the playoffs last year, already have victories. Their early season success, coupled with other presumed top teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske, as well as suddenly formidable Trackhouse Racing, all have closed the gap to the top of the leaderboard.
That is a less than ideal situation for Elliott. As he has earned three top 10s this season, he has watched newcomers finish ahead of him.
How long will Hendrick tolerate Elliott’s sudden inability to win on ovals? Even with seven titles, the great duo of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus were split. Chip Ganassi famously said, “I like winners.” At Hendrick, winning is expected.
Hendrick itself is going through a change. Jeff Gordon became the vice-chairman of the team this year, now calling shots for the organization instead of calling races for FOX (except for this past weekend).
Gordon won four Cup titles, but he too watched the supremacy of Hendrick pass from himself to Johnson. As such, Gordon can relate to Elliott’s descent from the top of the team pedestal.
If Elliott continues struggling, especially not winning on oval tracks, Gordon must decide on how to improve the No. 9 team.
As Elliott signed a five-year contract extension with the team, there won’t be a driver change within the team. Rather, the other option is to make a change atop the pit box.
Gustafson has helmed Elliott to a title and has 33 Cup wins to his credit. But great combos do not last forever. Even Tom Brady left Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
Gustafson is an excellent crew chief. If Elliott cannot capture a trophy and his frustrations, such as his misfortune at Bristol Motor Speedway last year and tangle with Larson at Auto Club Speedway this year, continue to mount, something must change.
Fortunately, Hendrick employs top-notch personnel. The team has a penchant from promoting within for its crew chiefs.
I think Jason Burdett would be a wise choice to swap spots with Gustafson. Burdett has guided Justin Allgaier in Xfinity, but the two have failed to win a championship.
Could Burdett, who has been successful as a crew chief, work well with Elliott? While it would not be a certainty, Burdett certainly would be a new voice in Elliott’s ear, perhaps willing to employ different strategies.
Gustafson in turn could be the missing piece for Allgaier’s championship hopes.
Elliott is indeed a favorite to win at Circuit of the Americas this weekend. Second-best is his teammate Larson, who won three road course races last year.
Yes, Larson has caught, if not bested Elliott, at road course racing. Again, how long will Hendrick accept Elliott’s inability to close out races with a win? – Mark Kristl
Oh ye of little faith or mild awareness
Sports fans seem to have some wild expectations of athletes, coaches, managers and ownership. It truly is a what-have-you-done-for-me-in-the-last-72-hours relationship. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that being a fan was a gateway to narcissistic personality disorder, where somebody, despite being completely unqualified to pass judgement or evaluate the performance of a player or coach other than their record, does so with such absolute certainty, that they are staring at the phone to ring, expecting ESPN to call and offer them a daytime split-screen argue show.
Such came to mind when reading that some are floating the idea that Alan Gustafson should be relieved of crew chief duties for Chase Elliott.
Uh … excuse me? The Alan Gustafson that won THE CHAMPIONSHIP in 2020? THAT Alan Gustafson?
The Alan Gustafson that single-handedly revived the careers of Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon in the span of three years? The rock-solid constant within Hendrick Motorsports, whose tenure has only been exceeded by Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus?
That Alan Gustafson?
The one who has had his driver in the Championship final four the last two seasons and is currently atop the regular season points standings?
I’d keep going, but I’m about to wear out the question mark and slash key on my laptop. This kind of early season pearl-clutching and hand-wringing is nothing short of baseless hysterics. We’re five races into the season, with a completely new car, and he’s leading the points and has led laps in three of the last four races. Oh hey, does anyone remember at Fontana when his teammate Kyle Larson’s spotter cleared him into Elliott at the fastest part of the track? Was that Gustafson’s fault as well?
This is like suggesting that Alabama should can Nick Saban just because they didn’t win the National Championship again. Or that Bill Belichick should step down, because the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl. Is anyone demanding Mike Tomlin be moved into a leadership role with the Pittsburgh Steelers?
I can’t tell if this is a generational thing, where everyone freaks out because the desired outcome isn’t happening immediately, or if there’s something else afoot.
There’s certain fan bases in NASCAR that are quite demanding, and as the most popular driver in the sport, Elliott fans certainly are vocal when their driver isn’t winning. I get the frustration because the teammates have all won but not the No. 9, but when the series just completed its West Coast swing and hit a totally new Atlanta track en route to only the second time visiting COTA following 2021’s inaugural drive-by-feel boat race, it’s absolute lunacy to panic just because you haven’t won a race yet.
Your guy is pretty good on a road course — in fact, he’s the defending champion of the race the haulers are en route to right now. Basically, half of his career wins have occurred on road courses, so I’d say you have a pretty good shot at winning one in a few days.
Will that calm everyone’s nerves down a little bit?
The driver who is typically averaging about three wins a year might not rattle off a couple in the first few races of the season, I’m sorry. Does that mean that Byron, Bowman, and Larson are better than Elliott? No — but we’re still dealing with a completely different car, and the teams aren’t exactly awash in spare parts, components and assembled racecars right now. With the amount of carnage that’s taken place in the series these first few races, to emerge relatively unscathed (dude’s car got a little dinged up at Auto Club) and without a rash of wheel or transaxle failures, I’d say save for one bad race, the season is off to a pretty solid start.
This isn’t a team that’s floundering, and HMS doesn’t have a habit of swapping crew chiefs and teams around willy-nilly in the first few races of the season. There are reasons why Hendrick has won the most races and championships — stability and consistency. Rarely does anyone get poached from Hendrick Motorsports, and the teams that stay together have produced the most over nearly 40 years of competition.
So, to all the No. 9 NAPA fans, know that it stands for Not A Personal Attack — everyone just needs to chill out for a couple of weeks and let things play out, and your championship winning crew chief will get the ship righted once again. – Vito Pugliese
About the author
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.