Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Analyzing Hendrick Motorsports Halfway Through The Season
When the checkered flag waved in Sonoma Raceway, Joe Gibbs Racing saw its tenth win of the 2019 season as Martin Truex Jr. crossed the finish line 1.861 seconds ahead of teammate Kyle Busch. Additionally, they had three of their four fielded cars finishing in the top five and all four finishing in the Top-10.
What about Hendrick Motorsports? To find the highest scoring Chevy Camaro from their stable, you’ll have to look back to the twelfth position where seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson wound up. Not to say all four cars didn’t run a good race.
William Byron started from second and led every lap in stage one to capture his first stage win of 2019. Chase Elliott was running well inside the top–five for a large portion of the race and led three laps before an engine failure sent him to the garage. Johnson and Alex Bowman even had themselves strong showings running in the Top-10 for a while.
“What went wrong with Hendrick Motorsports?” This is the question that has been asked since the 2018 season and the answer is simple – they can’t put together a complete race.
Qualifying? Sure, Hendrick Motorsports drivers have sped their way to six poles, eight front row starts and have even swept the top-two spots four times this season. So it’s proven they can begin a race off the right way, but starting and finishing are two completely different things.
Through 16 points races, Hendrick Motorsports has one win, 10 Top-fives and 22 Top-10s. This of course contrasted to Joe Gibbs Racing’s 10 wins, 27 top fives and 42 Top-10s through that same span.
Once upon a time, both Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing were the dominant teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Here’s a breakdown of the four Hendrick Motorsports driver’s with their strengths, weaknesses, rest of the season outlook and where to expect their next win.
Bowman turned heads back in 2016 when he won the pole for the Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway and finished sixth while driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had been sidelined with a concussion. He then earned himself a full-time ride in the No. 88 car for Hendrick Motorsports when the 16-time most popular driver retired following the 2017 season. Bowman would go on to have a less than stellar campaign in 2018 which carried over early on in 2019.
Bowman has once again captured the attention of NASCAR fans, as he has become arguably the most consistent driver over the last 10 races. In that time, Bowman has has successfully driven himself to five top-10 finishes, including three consecutive runner-up finishes.
A win seems imminent for the Tucson, Arizona native and it’s quite possible that Bowman will be the next Hendrick Motorsports driver to see victory lane. His next best shot? Daytona International Speedway in two weeks. In six races at the 2.5-mile track, Bowman has one pole, one Top-10 finish and has led 14 laps. To be fair, most of Bowman’s attempts at the famed superspeedway were cut short by wrecks, as is the case with most drivers. Never count Bowman out in a plate race; after all, he has superspeedway legend Earnhardt Jr. to lean on for advice.
Byron came into Cup Series hot after winning the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series title in his rookie season and then taking over driving duties for the famed No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports. Much like the organization as a whole, Byron fell victim to strong starts with failure to put together a complete race in the 2018 campaign. This year, Byron has seen slight improvements with the help from seven-time championship crew chief, Chad Knaus.
It seems as if every week the No. 24 team unloads a fast Chevy Camaro and Byron is a lock to set the quick time in qualifying. Byron began the 2019 season starting from the pole in the Great American Race and is tied with Kevin Harvick for the most poles this season with three. Byron has also qualified on the front row an additional four times. Starting up front obviously has its perks as Byron has led a total of 171 laps this season and captured his first stage win of 2019 at Sonoma, bringing his stage points total to 81 through 16 races.
There’s no doubt that Byron has seen improvements coming off of an average 2018 season, but the theme remains the same– the No. 24 team can’t put together a full race. Whether it’s a pit stop or failing to keep up with changing track conditions, Byron just can’t seem to keep it up front towards the later stages of an event. He is knocking on the door for a win and with a crew chief like Chad Knaus it’s safe to expect a win sooner, rather than later.
Byron’s next best opportunity to win also resides in Daytona. In just three starts at Daytona, Byron has one pole and has led 56 laps. The results may not show just yet, but Byron is a heck of a plate racer. The way he moves through traffic could be compared to the man who drove the No. 24 car before him – Jeff Gordon. Byron is bound for superstardom and you get the feeling that once he gets that first elusive win, things will start to click– much like teammate Chase Elliott.
It could be argued that up to this point that Elliott has been the lone bright spot for this once elite race team. The Cup Series reigning most popular driver leads Hendrick Motorsports in just about every category this season. Not to mention, he has a personality that NASCAR fans of young and old can get behind.
Elliott notched his first win of the season at Talladega Superspeedway and is the only Hendrick Motorsports car with a win this year. He is actually the only car within the team that has won a points race since the start of 2018. Through 16 races, Elliott leads the organization with 406 laps led, six top-five’s, and seven Top-10s The only other teammate to have him bested in a single category is Byron, who leads the Cup Series with three poles (Elliott is not far behind with two).
Elliott’s next best shot at a win is essentially anywhere. He is up there every week with the best of them and is always in contention for a win.
If you had told NASCAR fans in 2017 that after Johnson scored his third win of the season at Dover International Speedway, that he would go on a winless streak that has spanned over two years, they would call you crazy– yet here we are.
After starting 2019 winning the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, nothing has gone right for the seven-time champion. Following a winless 2018 season, the iconic driver/crew chief duo of Johnson and Knaus split, bringing aboard JR Motorsports crew chief Kevin Meendering to the No. 48 team. Johnson has shown brief glimmers of hope and improvement as we near the halfway point but it seems as if once they take one step forward, they take two steps back.
Johnson only has one top five finish this season and has only led 68 laps through 16 races. On the bright side, he has one pole and six Top-10 finishes. Its not to say Johnson and the No. 48 team don’t have speed as they have shown that, but there are mechanical issues, pit road mis-ques and other abstract incidents that prevented him from garnering a proper finish.
Being a seven-time champion, Johnson knows that putting together a complete race is what breeds success. If the No. 48 team can work out these kinks and silly mistakes, they could be in position to turn their season around. You’d like to think that Johnson and the No. 48 team can turn things around, but could this just be the product of an aging legend?
With 10 races remaining before the playoffs, Johnson sits one point below the cut line. While this is a minuscule margin with a healthy amount of races remaining, he should be not only racing for stage points, but wins as well. It’s tough to say when Johnson could be in line for his next win. Statistics should say as early as this weekend at Chicago, but that’s not the case.
Realistically, you have to look seven weeks ahead to Michigan International Speedway. This is a track which has been both a friend and foe to Johnson. While he only has one win in the Irish Hills, this is one of Johnson’s stronger tracks and he leads all active drivers with 700 laps led at the two-mile speedway. It should be noted that Johnson was in line for quite a handful of wins at Michigan until multiple last lap incidents prevented him from winning.
Elliot is currently the only Hendrick Motorsports driver locked into the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Bowman sits 10th in the standings, 69 points above the cut line. Byron is 14th in the standings, just 31 points above Johnson who is just outside the playoff picture. Can Hendrick Motorsports turn things around at the halfway point? Only time will tell.
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