Unpublished championship stories: 2021

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Sometimes, the best game stories are the ones that don’t see the light of day. Mike Wilson, Tennessee athletics beat writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel, told my sportswriting class that.

Though in the case of 2021, I think we got the best story.

As a peek behind the curtain, I wrote four championship columns, prior to Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway. Since Kyle Larson won, I hit PUBLISH on that piece.

I’d hate for the other three to waste away, however. So like I did last season, I put them all into this one piece. They’re ordered by finishing order from Sunday.

So without further adieu, here’s my unpublished championship stories for 2021.

Unpublished championship stories: 2021

The White Zone: Martin Truex Jr. goes from journeyman to Hall of Famer

AVONDALE, Ariz. – NOVEMBER 7: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7, 2021, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Martin Truex Jr.’s NASCAR career is a 30 for 30 special waiting to happen.

Once a hot prospect who won back-to-back NASCAR XFINITY Series championships, he went six years between his first Cup Series win in 2007 and his second in 2013. Just when his career turned around, however, “spingate” happened. His sponsor NAPA left, then Michael Waltrip Racing cut him loose.

During the offseason, he sat on his porch and pondered if he’d ever race in the Cup Series again.

The White Zone: Martin Truex Jr. goes from journeyman to Hall of Famer

“It was late in the season, (I) found out I wasn’t going to have a sponsor, obviously, for the next year,” he said. “I didn’t know of any rides available. I didn’t know anything‑‑ I didn’t know of any opportunities at that point in time, so I knew it was definitely going to be a tough road.”

But then, he got a call from the owner of Furniture Row Racing, Barney Visser.

“It was just a matter of luck and timing to be honest that it all came together.”

The rest was history.

Well, after an abysmal 2014 season, another long winless drought and Sherry Pollex’s ongoing battle with cancer, it all worked out for him.

Truex, who once went 218 races between wins (second only to Bill Elliott’s 226-race drought) and lost a ride because of actions beyond his control, morphed into one of the top drivers of the Cup Series and hoisted the Bill France Cup for the first time in 2017.

Sunday, he added a second trophy to his resume.

Now with 32 wins to his tally, which ties him for 27th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list (with Dale Jarrett), Truex becomes just the 17th driver to ever win multiple Cup Series championships.

Once a driver who we all might’ve looked back on and wondered what might’ve been, Truex punched his ticket to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

If that’s not a 30 for 30 special, I don’t know what is.

Unpublished championship stories: 2021

The White Zone: Denny Hamlin broke through

AVONDALE, Ariz. – NOVEMBER 7: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7, 2021, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Denny Hamlin sat 18th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list, entering the championship race at Phoenix Raceway. With 46 Cup Series victories, he tied NASCAR Hall of Famer, Buck Baker. He and everyone ahead of Hamlin on that list, minus Junior Johnson, have a championship.

Before Sunday, Hamlin’s resume included the aforementioned wins as a driver (plus one as an owner) and three Daytona 500 victories. The championship column, however, was a goose egg.

He was a modern day Mark Martin, but then, he broke through.

The White Zone: Denny Hamlin broke through

On Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, Hamlin added his name to the list of champions. Twenty-three of whom are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

If any doubt remained to Hamlin’s hall of fame resume, it evaporated, Sunday. Of the 17 drivers ahead of him on the wins list, all but three are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Two of them are active and one just retired.

Even below him, the only champions not in the hall yet are active drivers and Matt Kenseth, who enters the hall in January.

Not only that, but all the comparisons to him and Martin ended, Sunday. Never again will Hamlin hear that he can’t get it done. Never again will he hear that he’s accomplished everything, but win a championship.

Sunday, he broke through.

Furthermore, Hamlin exorcised the ghosts of 2010. When he blew his chance to clinch the championship with one race to go and lost to Jimmie Johnson.

Sunday, he broke through.

The fans can boo all they want.

Sunday, he broke through.

Finally, it’s true that Hamlin’s title run isn’t as dramatic as Kyle Larson’s would’ve been. It’s not a 30 for 30 special in the making, like Martin Truex Jr.‘s would’ve been. Hell, even Chase Elliott’s possible championship would’ve had more historic implications.

Hamlin’s title, like Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker’s World Series run, is a tale of a veteran driver who finally won it all.

Sunday, he broke through.

Unpublished championship stories: 2021

The White Zone: Chase Elliott goes back-to-back

AVONDALE, Ariz. – NOVEMBER 7: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, speaks with NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Rick Hendrick on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7, 2021, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Winning a NASCAR Cup Series championship is a tall task in and of itself, as only 34 different drivers accomplished it over the span of 72 seasons. Winning multiple championships is even more difficult, with only 16 drivers accomplishing that feat. Winning consecutive titles is a Herculean task, with only 10 drivers laying claim to that distinction. Moreover, the luck-heavy nature of the Playoffs makes this all but impossible.

Or so we thought.

Reigning champion Chase Elliott hoisted the Bill France Cup for the second year in a row, Sunday, at Phoenix Raceway. Considering he won it during a season where teammate Kyle Larson tore his way through the Cup Series, it reinforces all the talk of him being a generational talent.

The White Zone: Chase Elliott goes back-to-back

The list

He joins an elite group of drivers to win back-to-back championships. Which includes Hendrick Motorsports co-owner Jeff Gordon and retired teammate Jimmie Johnson. Furthermore, he joins the list of multiple time champions. A feat that not even his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, accomplished.

Moreover, barring a seismic shift in popularity, Chase Elliott joins NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty as the only drivers to ever win both the Cup Series championship and Most Popular Driver honors in back-to-back years.

Frankly, there’s no reason to think he can’t match Johnson and Cale Yarborough’s three-peat, in 2022. After all, he accomplished a task not done in 11 years and too many playoff changes to count. Moreover, he followed in the heels of his beloved Atlanta Braves, who spent most of the season under .500, but upended the Houston Astros, Tuesday, to win the World Series.

If Elliott pulls off the three-peat, next season, then just go ahead and get measurements for his blue jacket. Because he’s going right into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

While not as dramatic a story as the other Championship 4 drivers, Elliott’s didn’t need it.

TOP IMAGE: Sean Gardner/Sean Gardner