Jimmie Johnson soared to the lead at Chicagoland Speedway this past Sunday, showcasing speed that hasn’t been present with the No. 48 car in nearly a year.
While some speculate that Johnson has lost his magic touch with the new Chase format, he was bringing his Hendrick Motorsports car to the front of the pack once again. At Chicagoland, he paced the Sprint Cup Series field for a season-high 118 laps before finishing 12th after a speeding penalty ruined his shot at a triumph.
However, along with Johnson’s strong showing, rookie Chase Elliott, fill-in driver Alex Bowman and veteran Kasey Kahne each ran well, earning top-10 finishes. As the HMS quadruplet finished no worse than Johnson’s 12th, the team showed it has finally caught up with the likes of Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing, which have dominated the sport for the better part of the past two seasons.
But with Hendrick’s success this past weekend comes high expectations for the rest of the Chase.
Oh and speaking of Chase, a young lad with the last name Elliott certainly raised eyebrows at Chicagoland. Elliott set the pace for 75 laps at the 1.5-mile circuit, extending his lead over Johnson and Brad Keselowski to over four seconds at times. Though he failed to earn his first Sprint Cup win, he showed he is certainly capable of doing so at a track that HMS has won at just once, with Jeff Gordon in 2006.
Q: With Great Clips re-signing a contract with Kasey Kahne, what does this mean for his future at Hendrick? – Michael L., Kansas City.
A: Hendrick Motorsports’ future essentially lies in the hands of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s health and the decision he makes as to when he will retire.
Obviously, Earnhardt wants to be back next year, and he probably will be from what he, Dr. Jerry Petty and Dr. Micky Collins — his two neurologists — have stated. Eventually, he will have to make a decision as to how long he wants to continue racing, and life after his motorsports career is one that he is certainly thinking about.
As Earnhardt makes the critical decision of what to do for the future, HMS is attempting to plan out the future. Say if he cannot return to action come February, chances are that Bowman — a highly-regarded prospect in Earnhardt’s mind after running a few events for his XFINITY Series team — will get the call to drive the No. 88 car.
But the what-if situations being discussed could cause a potential major shake-up at HMS. Earnhardt is 41, and Johnson just turned the same age on Sept. 17. Oh, and Kahne is no youngster either, sitting at the age of 36.
With no developmental program other than JR Motorsports, which has Bowman and JR Motorsports title contender Justin Allgaier as its two young guns, there are major questions at HMS. Obviously, the signing of current Camping World Truck Series points leader William Byron is one that could develop into of great significance, just like Elliott has become.
Eventually, Byron will work his way to the Cup Series with the pace he is setting. In 16 Truck Series starts this year, he has five wins, eight top 5s and 10 top 10s, giving him a 9.6 average finish. While HMS and Chevrolet lost out on Kyle Busch, the team and OEM might possibly be getting payback now that it has snagged Byron away from Busch’s Toyota team.
Going back to Earnhardt, no matter what, he will retire sooner rather than later. Before a concussion forced him to miss the rest of the season, he wasn’t far behind Johnson in the standings, sitting 12th compared to the six-time champion in ninth.
While Hendrick Motorsports as a whole is suffering after falling behind with the low-downforce aero package, the majority of the organization has caught up.
However, Kahne is the exception. Signed through 2018, he is on the hot seat after missing the Chase last season and in 2016, along with failing to win a race since 2014 at Atlanta.
Kahne’s downfall is one that is rather shocking considering how strong he was through his first decade in the sport (2004-2014), winning 17 contests and gunning for titles in 2006 and 2012. With Great Clips extending its deal for the next two years, it gives Kahne some time to relax, understanding he isn’t on his way out just yet. However, as he put it, he doesn’t deserve to stay at HMS if he can’t compete for a title by the time his current contract is up.
Years back, when AARP extended its deal with Hendrick Motorsports, it clearly said in the press release that the extension focused on Hendrick Motorsports, rather than Jeff Gordon’s status behind the wheel. Evidently, the deal meant that the sponsor was prepared for a driver change if it were to occur, which it did, moving to Kahne’s car.
Remember, it appeared unlikely Kahne would stay with HMS, being rumored as the odd man out with Elliott replacing him. Obviously, that didn’t happen as Gordon retired.
While the future of HMS is certainly questionable, it appears as if the team is already coming up with a plan once Johnson and Earnhardt retire, possibly leaving Kahne as the elder statesman of the team if he can turn things around. However, Johnson has not given a time frame of when he may retire, which means he could be around for as long as he wants.
HMS will have some thinking to do over the off-season. However, with the options of Bowman, Allgaier and Byron, along with possibly grabbing a free agent like Kyle Larson, who has been on the team’s radar for quite some time, Hendrick could look a whole lot different by the start of the new decade.
Have a question? Email me at Joseph.Wolkin@Gmail.com or message me on Twitter at@JosephNASCAR and make sure to check back next week when we’ll answer your questions on all things NASCAR.
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