Hendrick Motorsports was riding high in 2014.
Jimmie Johnson just came off winning a sixth championship. Jeff Gordon was having his best season in years and had reemerged as a top title contender. Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored his second Daytona 500 victory and snapped a winless streak that had carried on for over a year. Kasey Kahne had a much more up-and-down season than his teammates, but he did score a win at Atlanta Motor Speedway to punch his ticket into the playoffs.
Of course, circumstances during the postseason prevented even one Hendrick driver from reaching the championship round.
Over the next two years, HMS remained one of the strongest organizations in NASCAR. However, several other teams made headlines that stole Hendrick’s thunder.
The success of Joe Gibbs Racing, including Kyle Busch’s comeback championship, became the story of 2015. The rise of the Team Penske duo, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, gave Hendrick even tougher competition. Even Stewart-Haas Racing, the former HMS satellite operation, developed into a premier organization in its own right winning the championship with Kevin Harvick in 2014, but particularly after switching to Ford for the 2017 season.
Hendrick’s drivers, meanwhile, had mixed success. Gordon had a tough final season in 2015, but performed well enough in the playoffs to reach the final round. Earnhardt enjoyed another multi-win season that same year, but concussion problems derailed his 2016.
Kahne has mostly struggled in his last two-and-a-half years, but pulled off a big victory in Sunday’s Brickyard 400. Even Johnson had to overcome a few hurdles to capture his seventh championship.
Hendrick Motorsports has been a team of superstars for nearly a decade, dating back to Mark Martin battling for championships. The team has enjoyed a great deal of success. Yet the winds of change are in the air, and Hendrick clearly has an eye on the future.
With Earnhardt’s impending retirement, Hendrick announced Alex Bowman will replace him in the No. 88 car. William Byron has also garnered plenty of attention. As a rookie in the XFINITY Series driving for JR Motorsports, Byron has racked up three wins in the last five races. He will likely find himself in a Hendrick Motorsports ride sooner or later, potentially at Kahne’s expense.
In other words, a youth movement is in full force at HMS as much as it is in NASCAR. Johnson will continue to be the organization’s biggest championship threat for several more years. Yet sooner rather than later, NASCAR’s arguably most successful team will be in the hands of Bowman, Byron and Chase Elliott. Will that trio, and whoever winds up taking Johnson’s place, be able to carry on Hendrick’s tradition of excellence?
Bowman has become a particularly interesting case. His background is not like Elliott’s or Byron’s, who have enjoyed elite equipment for most of their NASCAR careers. Bowman’s first full-time ride in the Cup Series was with BK Racing in 2014. That organization has not exactly been a launching pad for any stellar careers. BK Racing has typically employed drivers trying to break into NASCAR’s top level, like Bowman was, or more experienced drivers with nowhere else to turn.
The other team that Bowman once competed with, Tommy Baldwin Racing, has shown a greater preference for veterans. Yet Baldwin’s team has never been linked to any drivers who had long, highly successful careers in NASCAR’s highest division either.
Bowman’s story is fascinating because he has risen through the ranks of NASCAR the old-fashioned way, racing for struggling teams and hoping to catch the eye of a big-time owner.
Contrast his path with Elliott, whose famous father has made the second-year racer earmarked for success ever since he set foot in a race car.
That is where Elliott differs from Byron. The Liberty University student was a virtual unknown two or three years ago, but has enjoyed a meteoric rise with the assistance of Kyle Busch and Earnhardt.
All three have promising futures, despite a relative lack of experience in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. So, where do Rick Hendrick and his team go from here? Can the No. 24 team get to Victory Lane in the next six races and lock up a Chase spot? Will Kahne, now a Brickyard 400 winner, finish out his contract or give way to Byron? Is Byron on the way to an XFINITY title? Will Bowman, finally in top-flight equipment, become the next Johnson, or the next Casey Mears?
In the next few years, none of NASCAR’s top teams will see a greater changing of the guard than Hendrick. As a result, Hendrick may wind up being the most fun team to watch.