One of the biggest paradoxes in NASCAR right now?
Trying to suss out the pecking order at Hendrick Motorsports, one of the sport’s historic winners.
In the past, HMS has been buoyed by legitimate NASCAR icons: Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the list goes on. Only now with the retirements of Gordon and Earnhardt, the one-time winning factory has instead seen a shakeup in the hierarchy.
Jimmie Johnson, winner of seven Cup Series championships, is the last remnant from HMS’ old regime. He’s currently joined by reigning Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott, Charlotte native William Byron, and former team fill-in Alex Bowman.
But even with Johnson’s clear legacy and experience advantage over his counterparts, the pecking order at Hendrick Motorsports appears... fluid, to say the least. Is Johnson still top dog? With one third of the 2019 Cup season already complete, an evaluation of the Hendrick hierarchy as it currently stands:
1. Chase Elliott: Is this a surprise? It shouldn’t be. The past two seasons, it’s become clear that Elliott is Hendrick’s new top dog for the future, as he was intended to become when he first joined the company. Elliott’s three wins late last season were the only salvation for one of the team’s worst years, and he almost finessed his way into the championship four.
This season, he’s the only Hendrick driver to actually make it to victory lane. Add that he’s reeled off three straight Top 5s, plus two poles in five weeks, and it makes sense that Elliott has risen to fourth in the overall points standings. Elliott’s worst finish was 19th at Atlanta in the second race of the year, and he hasn’t finished outside the Top 15 in the nearly three months since. So yeah, top billing at Hendrick certainly goes to him. Consider the guard officially changed.
2. Alex Bowman: Now this may come as a surprise, and it’s something worth arguing. You could reasonably make the case for either Johnson or Bowman as the second-in-command at HMS after Elliott. Johnson obviously has the championship pedigree... but he also hasn’t won in more than two calendar years.
Which is why we’ll give Bowman the benefit of the doubt, especially if his recent stretch of form is at all a sign of things to come. Bowman has now finished second in three consecutive races, and at Kansas this weekend, he was leading with fewer than 15 laps to go before Brad Keselowski got past him. At this point, Bowman gets the the second spot over Johnson for two reasons: his youth (he turned 26 in August), and the fact that he’s ascending rather than descending. This one though, to reiterate, is fluid.
3. Jimmie Johnson: In 2017, after getting bounced from the Cup Series playoffs just shy of the championship, Johnson declared that season had been the toughest of his long and storied career. Then he followed that up by not winning a single race in 2018, the first such winless season he ever had. Everything just seemed to snowball, resulting in Johnson switching sponsors and crew chiefs ahead of this season.
And the results have been... mixed. There certainly have been encouraging moments, like winning the pole and coming in fifth at Texas, but they’ve been too irregular for someone with the resume Johnson has. Johnson will be with Hendrick Motorsports through at least the 2020 season, and it would be one of NASCAR’s greatest surprises if he signed with another team thereafter. The former champ probably still has another few wins up his sleeve, but an eighth championship might be overly ambitious at this point in his career.
4. William Byron: This isn’t meant to be a knock on Byron, who won’t turn 22 until after the season, but rather that he’s still the most inexperienced of Hendrick’s quartet. Byron has championship experience in the Xfinity Series, which can make it easy to forget how young he still is.
That isn’t to say Byron has been all bad for HMS, as he’s clearly making improvements. He has two Top-10’s already this year compared to four all of his rookie season in 2018, so progress is coming along. Just, slowly. Byron’s currently 19th in the points standings and the only Hendrick driver slated to miss the playoffs — reversing that trajectory would be huge for him closing out his sophomore campaign.
This week’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race.
Distance: 85 laps, split into four stages of 30, 20, 20, and 15 laps.
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile asphalt oval in Concord, North Carolina.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Last year’s winner: Kevin Harvick.
Worth mentioning: This year’s All-Star Race rules package will test elements of NASCAR’s impending Gen-7 cars, which are currently slated to debut in 2021.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Alex Bowman: A pretty ho-hum start to the year has suddenly been upended by three consecutive second-place finishes... Now, can he get over the hump for his first Cup victory?
Chase Elliott: Three straight Top 5s, including his first win of the year, have vaulted Elliott to fourth in the points standings.
Kyle Busch: After such a hot start to the season, he’s cooled the last three weeks, culminating with his 30th-place finish at Kansas.
William Byron: He recorded his second Top-10 of the year at Dover two weeks ago... and then followed it up by finishing 20th at Kansas. Where’s the consistency?