In the heavyweight bout between two of NASCAR Cup Series‘ top organizations, Hendrick Motorsports knocked out Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR).
Hendrick earned the championship belt for the second straight year when Kyle Larson fought off Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin to the finish line of the 2021 Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7.
But the fight went the distance.
Joe Gibbs Racing entered Championship 4 finale as the underdog to Hendrick Motorsports
Hendrick weighed in for the 2021 desert finale as the heavy favorite, according to JGR’ Team Competition Director Wally Brown.
“We just don’t have the raw speed they’ve had this year, to be honest,” Brown said, reported by motorsport.com. “They’ve just beaten us, just faster everywhere.
“We’re definitely the underdog.”
Most didn’t buy the deflection of hype, however.
True, Larson was the series’ most dominant racer. He started lapping the field from the moment NASCAR reinstated the Cup Series’ only Asian-American driver from a suspension stemming from Larson uttering a racial slur during an iRacing streaming event in 2020.
In his first year with Hendrick, Larson paced the series with 2,581 laps led, and an average driver rating of 112.6.
But JGR’s Toyotas forged an advantage over Hendrick’s Chevrolets during the Championship 4 race. The Toyotas were stronger on long runs and when confronted with two short changes, Larson and his teammate, Chase Elliott, proved more decisive.
Truex’s Championship 4’s troubles started on final short change
JGR’s short-run handicap played a role in Truex placing second for the third time in the last four seasons.
With 46 laps to go, Truex shocked Elliott by staying on the lead lap while most of the field went in for a pit stop.
Truex’s best shot – a long run to the finish – evaporated on the final short stop resulting from Anthony Alfredo’s accident.
Truex’s troubles were just starting when the yellow flag waved. As Larson’s crew blazed through an 11.8-second pit stop, the JGR crew slipped as the driver headed back on the track in third place, behind leader Larson and Hamlin.
Truex led for 72 laps on Nov. 7 but couldn’t keep up with Larson’s quick pace off restarts, crossing the finish line .398 seconds behind Larson.
Truex didn’t hold back his emotions after the race.
“Gosh, second sucks,” he said, reported by nascar.com. “I hate it.”
Small: ‘We just struggled just a little bit on pit road all day’
During the 36 points races, Hedrick’s drivers, led by Larson’s 10 wins, earned 17 checkered flags. Larson also captured the $1 million all-star exhibition.
“They had a hell of a season, and congrats to them,” Truex said.
Truex’s crew chief, James Small, pinpointed where JGR came up short. He called the team’s pit work a “little bit messy.”
The last caution “wasn’t what we needed,” Small said. “I think if it went green there, we would’ve just kept pulling away.
“We just struggled just a little bit on pit road all day, to be honest, compared to the Hendrick cars. That 5 car crew’s been strong all year, and that really won them the race.”