Hendrick Motorsports came into the 2021 season without their seven-time champion driver for the first time since 2001. Jimmie Johnson retired following the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season and was replaced. Four young drivers all under the age of 30 drove for one of the most well-known race teams in the world this season. The team was hoping to stockpile more victories and win back-to-back NASCAR Cup Series Championships after Chase Elliott won the title last year. The 2021 season went far better for Hendrick Motorsports than anyone could’ve imagined. However, it was newcomer Kyle Larson who took over the reins as the organization’s top driver.
The following article continues a FlurrySports series that looks back on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season from the perspective of drivers and race teams. Read on for season reviews of the top-two finishing Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott.
NASCAR Cup Series 2021 Season Reviews | Hendrick Motorsports (Part I)
Kyle Larson — No. 5
After uttering a racial slur during an IRacing event last year,Kyle Larson was let go from Chip Ganassi Racing effective immediately. He spent the entire post-shutdown portion of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season watching from home and competing in numerous dirt track events across the country. Larson signed a one-year deal with Hendrick Motorsports to drive the No. 5 car in 2021. To say that he made the most of this second chance would be an understatement.
Kyle Larson Shows Speed Early but fails to Maintain Consistency
Kyle Larson started out with a top-10 finish in the Daytona 500 and a 30th-place finish at the Daytona Road Course. The third race of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway would be where he finally had a great run and finished fourth. In his fourth start with Hendrick Motorsports, Larson put it all together and won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Two weeks later he dominated at Atlanta, leading 269 laps. Unfortunately, he was passed late by Ryan Blaney and wound up second. After wrecking in the Bristol Dirt Race, he rebounded with a fifth-place finish.
The spring race at Talladega Superspeedway was probably the low point for the No. 5 team this season. They overheated three laps in after not taking out a piece of packing equipment that helps the car be transported to the track safely. The following week at Kansas, Larson dominated again, only to fall back to 19th on a late restart.
A Run for the Ages
The next eight weeks served as a two-month-long coming-out party for Kyle Larson. At Darlington Raceway, he finished second after falling just shy of chasing down Martin Truex Jr. in the closing laps. At Dover, he led 263 laps until getting passed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and finished second. At COTA, he was chasing down Chase Elliott when NASCAR called the race due to rain. The prestigious Coca-Cola 600 was a total Larson domination. This time, he also got to keep the checkered flag after finishing out the win. Larson led 327 laps en route to his second win and Hendrick Motorsports’ 269th win all-time. This gave them the most of any race team in NASAR Cup Series history.
Larson kept right on rolling after that historic night at Charlotte. He followed it up by winning Sonoma, the NASCAR All-Star Race and Nashville. Larson was on his way to win his fourth victory in a row when he cut a tire going into the final turn on the final lap at Pocono. The win went to HMS teammate Alex Bowman instead on that day. He finished ninth but rebounded the next day in the second race of the Pocono doubleheader to finish second.
Kyle Larson Caps Off Dominant Season with NASCAR Cup Series Championship
Kyle Larson would earn one more win at Watkins Glen before the start of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, for which he was fittingly the top seed. He opened the playoffs at Darlington by trying to “video game” it on the final lap but finished second. After a sixth-place finish at Richmond, Larson got a little help from Chase Elliott to get the win at Bristol. Larson actually found himself in danger of being eliminated in the Round of 12 at the Charlotte Roval. Despite having to change an alternator belt in the engine, he was able to get the ROVAL win and move into the next round. Crew chief Cliff Daniels and the entire No. 5 team pit crew certainly got a big assist in that one.
The final four of the season races were all Kyle Larson. Win at Texas, win at Kansas, 14th at Martinsville, then one more win at Phoenix gave him 10 victories on the season overall. Oh, and he capped it all off by winning his first NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
Record-Setting Season for Larson, Hendrick Motorsports
Kyle Larson had a 2021 season for the NASCAR Cup Series history books. He totaled 10 wins, 20 top-5s, 26 top-10s, an average finish of 9.1 and led 2581 of his 9000 laps completed. Larson and the No. 5 team will be the favorites to repeat next season in the Cup Series. He is the new driver to beat out of the talented Hendrick Motorsports garage.
Chase Elliott — No. 9
The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet returned in 2021 for his sixth season in the NASCAR Cup Series. Chase Elliott came into the year hoping to repeat as the series champion.
After Near Miss at Daytona, Chase Elliott Goes Dormant for Early-Season Stretch
Chase Elliott came oh-so-close to following that championship with a Daytona 500 win but came up just short due to a caution coming out on the final lap. He was leading late at the Daytona Road Course the following week when NASCAR called a caution for rain. Elliott fell back off the restart and finished 21st. He didn’t get back to having good results until Phoenix.
Atlanta saw the No. 9 have an engine issue and finish 38th. Elliott quickly rebounded with back-to-back top-10s at Bristol and Martinsville. He would go on a bit of roll after that with a win at Circuit of the Americas, five top-5s and six top-10s in the span of six races between Kansas and Sonoma. After being disqualified at Nashville, he kind of fell back a bit with lackluster finishes at Pocono.
Road Course King Tames Road America, Builds Momentum for Playoffs
Chase Elliott returned to victory lane with a win at Road America on Independence Day. That would start a stretch of finishes that saw him vault up to fifth in the NASCAR Cup Series points standings by the start of the playoffs. After an abysmal team effort at Darlington, he rebounded by finishing fourth at Richmond.
Despite Being at the Center of Controversy, Chase Elliott Reaches Championship 4
In an unforgettable playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Chase Elliott was leading late in the race when he decided to make it three-wide with Kevin Harvick and a lapped car. This led to Harvick not getting his entry right and sending the two up the track. Elliott cut down a tire and had to pit. When he came back onto the track, he slammed into Harvick and then took away his line. The move cost Harvick the win and the two had it out in a big post-race skirmish on pit road.
Despite all of that drama and the additional run-ins with Harvick that would ensue in the coming weeks, Elliott was able to point his way into the Round of 8 and the Championship 4. This gave him the opportunity to try and defend his NASCAR Cup Series Championship in the final race of the year at Phoenix Raceway. Elliott led some laps early on, but he was nowhere near the other three Championship 4 cars by the end.
Chase Elliott Hopes to See More Widespread Successs in 2022
Chase Elliott finished out the 2021 season with his two wins at Circuit of the Americas and Road America, 15 top-5 finishes and 21 top-10s. While it was still a solid overall season, Elliott was certainly overshadowed in the Hendrick Motorsports paddock by Kyle Larson. He and crew chief Alan Gustafson will look to win at other tracks besides the road courses next season and contend for another championship.