Are JGR really "underdogs" in the NASCAR Cup Series title race?

Hendrick Motorsports has dominated the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series this season but is Joe Gibbs Racing really fighting an uphill battle in Sunday’s championship race at Phoenix

Are JGR really "underdogs" in the NASCAR Cup Series title race?
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Of course, it depends on who you ask and also what statistics one considers the more relevant.

Wally Brown, JGR’s competition director, certainly believes the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Kyle Larson and reigning series champion Chase Elliott have an advantage.

“Usually a lot of times, JGR might be the favorite going into a championship race. I think we’re definitely the underdogs. We have to beat the guy – Kyle Larson – that has won so many races, been so dominant this year,” he said.

“Then you have Chase, the reigning champion at this track. We’re definitely the underdog. We just don’t have the raw speed they’ve had this year, to be honest. We’re trying to figure that out.

“They’ve just beaten us, just faster everywhere.”

Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Ally, Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry FedEx Ground

Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Ally, Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry FedEx Ground

Photo by: Lesley Ann Miller / Motorsport Images

From a wins standpoint, Brown’s analysis is certainly true. Hendrick’s four Cup drivers have amassed 16 wins through 35 races, including a career-best nine by Larson.

Hendrick drivers have won races on several types of tracks – short tracks, intermediates, road courses, concrete and asphalt.

And yet, Martin Truex Jr. – who along with JGR teammate Denny Hamlin – make up the Championship 4 with Larson and Elliott, won the spring race at Phoenix Raceway, where the championship will be decided.

Shouldn’t that count for something?

“You know how this sport works. You’re always working to get better. To say the cars are the same is not true,” Brown said. “We’ve learned things. There’s been other rule updates. We’ve had to make soft changes and things like that.

“They’re never the exact same.”

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro HendrickCars.com

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro HendrickCars.com

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

In addition, while Larson has racked up nearly 10 wins – and been in contention for several others – the battle for the regular season title still went down to the wire with Hamlin, who has two wins on the season.

While Hamlin may not have earned a large number of victories, his No. 11 Toyota team has still shown it’s had the speed to lead laps and contend for wins while going toe-to-toe with Larson in the points race for the regular season championship.

Even this past Sunday, Hamlin – not Larson – was in excellent position in the closing laps to win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, until Hamlin was spun out by eventual winner Alex Bowman.

No underdogs in this fight

That’s part of the reason Jeff Andrews, executive vice president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, doesn’t buy into Brown’s “underdog” claim.

“As far as us going in with the advantage, personally I don’t see it that way,” Andrews said. “Maybe statistically you could make that argument. From ourselves and how we’re approaching it, we’re going out there to race with Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the best teams in the history of this sport.

“Our approach is not having the advantage. Our approach is to go into Phoenix, keep our focus on being better than we were in Martinsville, being better than we were at our last 1-mile track, so to speak, and focus on our race teams, focus on our pit stops – just making sure that we go in and execute and check all the boxes on our end that we’re supposed to do.”

Andrews doesn’t have to look any further than this past Sunday to prove his point – a race where Elliott led 289 of the 501 laps but never recovered once he got spun out from the lead by Brad Keselowski on Lap 455.

While Elliot, Larson and Hamlin combined to 469 laps, it was Bowman – who led just nine laps – who came away with the victory.

“We got to go out and execute,” Andrews said. “We know there’s so many things that can happen with tires or cautions falling at the wrong time that can completely just change the outcome of that race.

“Hopefully, we’ve taken all of our experiences and things we’ve done good or bad from the season and we’ve put all that together and we’re prepared as we possibly can be for Sunday.”

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