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Through the Field: Finish Line

by Elliot Hicks

Though you may have thought the previous “Through the Field” column was the final one of the year, we’ve got one more for you to enjoy before a nice winter break as NASCAR is fully entrenched in its offseason.

This season of columns was the longest consistent writing project I’ve ever taken on in terms of writing about the same general content every other week for 10 months. And while I enjoyed it a lot and believe I put some good content out, it was definitely more of a challenge than I expected.

But that’s just part of life, isn’t it?

Sometimes it was as simple as could be; I’d have a topic in my head, whether it be something I’d thought could be relevant to the races ahead or a big news topic in the sport worth discussing.

There were some weeks where I genuinely just had no idea what to write about, to the point of reaching out to others to get the ball rolling. And sometimes it was difficult to ensure that things wouldn’t be stale; for example, with the increase in road course races, I think I ended up with three out of a set of five columns in the summer coming around road course race dates.

But we made it through, and I’m looking forward to hopefully doing it all again next season.

It was a season in 2021 of good and not-so-good moments that featured some surprises and some disappointment on the track. I’ll break down some of those that we saw, starting with the Cup series champion:

2021 Surprises

Kyle Larson:  As we discussed on the season finale of “The Backroad,” our fantasy NASCAR YouTube series, we were way too low on Kyle Larson heading into the year. But can you blame us?

The team he stepped into (the No. 48 crew who had worked with Jimmie Johnson) had gone years without winning a race and missed the playoffs in 2020, and Larson had never truly broken out as a week-in, week-out contender. He definitely proved us all wrong with a 10-win season and a NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Congrats to both him and anyone who took advantage of that low early-season price on him.

Ryan Blaney:  Though Team Penske didn’t have its best season overall (more on that shortly), Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 team ran much better and more consistently than it has in his career so far. Three wins, 423 laps led, an average finish of 11.9 and a top-10 in more than half the races in 2021 is a good spot to be in.

William Byron:  William Byron is another young driver like Blaney who had a solid, consistent year when we may have expected their particular team to be overshadowed by other cars in the organization. The No. 24 couldn’t get back to victory lane after Homestead early in the season, but it was one of the best cars in the run of playoff races, building momentum for next year.

Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR):  Though the team could only muster up the one-time-per-year Kurt Busch victory, there were times in 2021 where a CGR car, whether it be Busch or Ross Chastain, was among the fastest cars on the track consistently. That just didn’t really happen for much of the team’s history.

Even after their sale to Trackhouse, the team never gave up, and while it didn’t end in great points finishes or any other victories, CGR went out better than we would have expected.

2021 Disappointments

Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR):  I’m honestly grateful that this is the last time I will take a figurative dump on Stewart-Haas Racing this season. They appeared to be one of the strongest teams in the garage after a 2020 season where Kevin Harvick won nine times and every car made the playoffs. Yet their lone 2021 win came at New Hampshire when Aric Almirola won and a winless Harvick was only able to barely squeak into the playoffs.

Though Harvick rallied to a fifth-place points finish, the other three team cars finished 15th (Almirola), 23rd (rookie Chase Briscoe) and 26th (Cole Custer) in the standings, and it would’ve been a lot worse if not for Almirola’s win. The team will need to hope for a strong rebound with the next-gen Cup car, or it could be in major trouble.

Joey Logano:  It wasn’t the best season for Team Penske, as I mentioned earlier, and although all three cars made the playoffs, neither the outgoing Brad Keselowski nor Joey Logano ever felt like a championship threat.

2021 featured Logano’s worst average finish and laps led total since 2013, as well as the lowest win total, points finish and top-10 finish total since 2017 (only being able to win in 2021 on the schedule’s lone dirt race.) Though it wasn’t a terrible season, 2021 fell well short of expectations for Logano’s No. 22.

Matt DiBenedetto:  Even setting aside his actions on social media and at the track which have made him a public relations (PR) nightmare at the moment, DiBenedetto’s performance on the track never took the next step we were waiting for.

He’s never had more than three top-five finishes in a season and could only muster nine top-10s in 2021, which was two fewer than 2020. For a car that is essentially a fourth Team Penske car, that performance just doesn’t cut it even in a more mediocre than usual season for them. Ultimately, being unable to break through for his first victory, as well as lack of consistency and funding, has left Matty D out of work at this point for 2022.

Chase ElliottIt’s tough to make an argument for a driver who made the Championship 4 to have had a disappointing season, but ultimately Elliott did not have the season we were all looking for.

After winning the 2020 title, the series’ most popular driver was supposed to take the next step into yearly domination of the field. Instead, two of his teammates ended up with more victories, and Larson has seemingly taken the mantle of the best driver at Hendrick Motorsports.

Elliott’s No. 9 team couldn’t win on an oval track all season, and one of the road-course victories came in a rain-shortened race. It will be interesting to see if Elliott will be able to reach his heightened expectations or if he risks falling into a trap of never quite getting there that the previous perennial most popular Cup driver fell into.

Thanks for reading. For more fantasy NASCAR and life advice, follow me on Twitter, @EHicks39, or check out more of my work at Elliot-Hicks.com.

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