NSJ 2020 Pro Team of the Year: Elliott leads Hendrick back to NASCAR’s peak

The Cup Series team started 2020 planning for life after Jimmie Johnson and ends the year with another championship courtesy of the Cup Series’ most popular driver

Chase Elliott, left, and team owner Rick Hendrick celebrate after Elliott drove the No. 9 to the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship. (Ralph Freso / AP Photo)

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season was supposed to be a grand farewell tour for retiring seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson — a track-by-track salute to one of the greatest stock car drivers of all time with gifts like rocking chairs presented in front of tens of thousands of adoring fans.

The coronavirus had other plans.

While NASCAR managed to pull off its return from the pandemic, it was hard to give Johnson and the No. 48 — Concord-based Hendrick Motorsports’ flagship driver-car combination of the past 15 seasons — a proper sendoff with limited crowds.

One thing that did get done right? The passing of the torch.

While Johnson’s regular season ended with him just missing the playoffs, Hendrick’s No. 9 team and Chase Elliott — already NASCAR’s most popular driver since the retirement of another Hendrick driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. — followed in the tradition of Johnson and other Hendrick drivers like Jeff Gordon by winning the Cup Series title.

“I just, man, I’m at a loss for words. This is unbelievable,” said Elliott, who now teams with 1998 champion Bill Elliott to become the latest father-son tandem to have both won a Cup Series crown, after claiming his first title. “Oh, my gosh. We did it. I mean, we did it. That’s all I’ve got to tell you. Unreal.”

It was the first of what could be many for the 25-year-old Elliott, who dominated the Cup Series’ road courses in 2020 before winning at Martinsville in the penultimate race of the season and then taking the season finale at Phoenix to clinch his first championship — and led to Hendrick Motorsports being named North State Journal’s 2020 Pro Team of the Year.

And Elliott will certainly benefit from NASCAR’s decision to double the number of Cup races that take place on road courses to six in 2021 — up from three the last two seasons after decades of having just two events away from ovals.

“Yeah, I think it’s him. I think we have Chase Elliott. That’s the difference,” Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, said of his driver’s dominance on road courses after the No. 9 won on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval to earn a fourth-straight road course victory. “He’s really, really good. I don’t know what else to say. I think his performances speak for themselves.”

That’s all good news for Hendrick, which hadn’t had a driver compete for the championship in the final race of the year since Johnson won the last of his seven titles in 2016.

“He’s a young guy,” team owner Rick Hendrick said of Elliott. “I think he’s going to win a lot of them. Seven is a big number, but that’s something to shoot at.”

His retiring teammate also believes Elliott is up for the challenge.

“A big moment like (winning a championship) really cements you in everybody’s head as the real deal,” Johnson said. “It’s one thing to win races, it’s one thing to be fast, but to get it all done and win races and be fast and win a championship is the most difficult thing to do in our sport.

“For him to have a championship at this age and being so young, there’s no telling what the win total will be for him or his championship total.”

And it’s important to not overlook the rest of the Hendrick stable of drivers.

With Johnson’s retirement, Hendrick shuffled its drivers around the four-car team. Elliott will stay in the No. 9 and William Byron will remain in the No. 24, but Alex Bowman will jump from Earnhardt Jr.’s old No. 88 into the No. 48.

If there’s one potential blemish on Hendrick’s 2020, it’s who they chose to fill the empty seat vacated by Johnson.

Kyle Larson, who was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing in April after he used a racial slur in an iRacing event, will pilot the reborn No. 5. The No. 88 will not compete in 2021.

The 27-year-old Larson is a graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and the only driver of Japanese descent to win a major stock car race, and he spent his time away from the Cup Series racing sprint cars and attempting to make amends for his misstep.

His second chance will come with Hendrick, and he will have to walk a fine line to regain the support of a sport and fan base that embraced diversity and social causes in 2020 in a way never before seen.

If he can combine success on the track with humility off it, Larson will be another young ace in the loaded Hendrick stable in 2021.