Did You Notice? … Chase Elliott is off his game in 2023?
NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver has become the sport’s Most Disheartening Performer, winless within a Hendrick Motorsports program that’s produced two top-tier contenders this season in William Byron and Kyle Larson.
It hasn’t helped that Elliott missed six starts due to injury and a seventh after a one-race suspension for hooking Denny Hamlin during the Coca-Cola 600 in May. But the No. 9 car just hasn’t shown the speed to run up front all season long. Elliott’s 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 near impossible. He’s 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 slump is not unique. In a sport where the margin between first and 30th is razor thin, gone are the days where one driver can dominate the series for an extended length of time. We’ve yet to experience a back-to-back champion during the current 16-driver, multi-round elimination format, making what Jimmie Johnson did from 2006-10 even more special.
Forget five straight titles. I think drivers would kill for just a two-year period in which they’re able to still experience extended success. I took a quick look at the 10 years of the current postseason format and how a driver with the most wins performed the following year. As you’ll see, in almost every case they couldn’t sustain their success.
Most wins in 2013: Matt Kenseth, 7
2014 Kenseth: No wins.
Kenseth came into the first year of the elimination-style format red-hot, falling just short of a second title in a one-on-one with Johnson the year before. Instead, his second year with Joe Gibbs Racing turned into a sophomore slump, the three-car team combining for just two race wins while Kenseth got shut 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
2015 Keselowski: 1 win
Keselowski missed the Championship 4 in 2014, a theme we’ve seen a little too often from the year’s most dominant driver. The malaise carried over into a 2015 season where Keselowski and Team Penske won just once, a race at Auto Club Speedway in which he led just a single lap (a late debris caution ripped victory away from Kurt Busch). Posting just nine top-five finishes, Keselowski had 1,184 laps led but even that total is deceiving; nearly half that total came in the year’s final four races, where the No. 2 team made a valiant effort to advance within the Round of 8.
Most wins in 2015: Joey Logano, 6
2016 Logano: 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 restart until contact with Carl Edwards derailed things for them both. But while posting 26 top-10 finishes, his win total did decrease by 50% along with laps led (from 1,431 to 703).
Most wins in 2016: Jimmie Johnson, 5
2017 Johnson: 3 wins
Johnson’s 2017 started out fairly strong, earning three wins in the first 13 races. Who would have guessed those would have been the last of his Cup career? The seven-time champion earned just one top-five finish beyond that, a third at Dover Motor Speedway that September, and entered a slump from which he still hasn’t recovered.
Most wins in 2017: Martin Truex Jr., 8
2018 Truex: 4 wins
Once again, an exception to the rule here as Truex made the Championship 4, narrowly losing the title race to Logano. But his win total did get chopped in half, and Truex’s single-car team, Furniture Row Racing, was forced to shut down after losing the bulk of its primary sponsorship. So second place really was the first loser, I guess?
Most wins in 2018: Kevin Harvick, 8
2019 Harvick: 4 wins
Harvick continued his streak of Championship 4 appearances (2017-19) but felt a step behind eventual champion Kyle Busch. The consistency was there though, racking up a season-best 26 top-10 finishes. He’s the best example of maintaining speed for multiple years under this format.
Most wins in 2019: Martin Truex Jr., 7
2020 Truex: 1 win
Truex went through a transition year in 2020, losing longtime crew chief Cole Pearn to retirement. The team took a while to adjust to new head wrench James Small and made several uncharacteristic mistakes, leading to the veteran’s worst points finish and overall performance since 2016.
Most wins in 2020: Kevin Harvick, 9
2021 Harvick: 0 wins
This performance is the poster child for falling off under this format. Harvick was a few good moves at Martinsville Speedway from making the Championship 4 in 2020 and ultimately making good on the best season in his 20+-year Cup career. Instead, the blow the team suffered from collapsing in the Round of 8 created a malaise around this team in 2021 that never lifted. Harvick’s laps-led total shrunk from 1,531 to 217, his top-five finishes were cut in half (20 to 10) and he got shut out of victory lane for the first time since 2009. Yikes.
Most wins in 2021: Kyle Larson, 10
2022 Larson: 3 wins
You’re bound to have a letdown after one of the most impressive seasons in the modern era (1972-present). Larson’s first title was hard to replicate, the No. 5 team never enjoying the type of consistency or luck they acquired the year before. Laps led dropped from a whopping 2,581 to just 635 while Larson’s DNF total ballooned to seven.
So there you have it. The last decade of NASCAR has produced a revolving door of who’s out front, parity making an extended run of dominance near impossible. So, maybe we should have expected Elliott to take a step back in 2023. The question now for the No. 9 team is … where’s the floor?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- Conventional wisdom the past few months has been both Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. will return to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2024. Hamlin made clear he wants to end his driving career with JGR, while Truex is battling neck-and-neck with Byron to become this year’s number one playoff seed. But didn’t we say the same thing about Kyle Busch last year?
- Every day that goes by with these drivers unsigned creates uncertainty within a JGR organization that’s already been through its fair share of trauma the past 12 months. As I delved into at CBS Sports this week, it feels like Truex is looking at his recent success and openly wondering whether going out on top would be better than sticking around too long. If I’m manning the ship at JGR, I look at those quotes Monday and am a lot more worried than I was before Truex went out and won.
- Remember how last year brought us to the precipice of 17 winners during the regular season? So much for that in 2023. We still have six races to go before the playoffs and the most we could have at this point is 17 eligible winners (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 soon as this weekend. Who would have thought?
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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