2017 NASCAR Cup Team Review: Hendrick Motorsports

Hendrick Motorsports entered the 2017 season with momentum. Jimmie Johnson came into the season as the defending Cup Series champion, earning their seventh title in ten years and their first under the new format. After what appeared to be a lost regular season for the organization in 2016, Johnson’s push to the top gave the organization their 12th NASCAR championship overall.

Joining Johnson at HMS was youngster Chase Elliott. Elliott’s 2016 season was good enough for NASCAR Rookie of the Year, but he and his team had gone winless. They were seeking improvement along with Kasey Kahne, attempting to rebound from a couple of down years.

Also returning was Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt spent the second half of the 2016 season on the sidelines due to concussion-like symptoms. Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman filled in for the Kannapolis, N.C. native as he recovered. In December 2016, he was cleared to race by doctors and Earnhardt and his team were ready to compete for the championship as the new season began.

Here’s a look back at how Hendrick’s 2017 season turned out.

Chase Elliott

Speedweeks 2017 got off to a great start for Hendrick Motorsports. The organization took the front row, with Elliott winning the pole for the Daytona 500. It was the youngster’s second straight role in the Great American Race.

Elliott’s strong start to the weekend would continue. On Thursday evening, he led 25 of the 60 laps during his Can-Am Duel race and went to Victory Lane. It was the first victory of any kind in a Cup car for the son of “Awesome Bill” Elliott.

Chase led the field to green during the 500 and showed strength throughout the race. He ran up front for most of the afternoon and when it came down to the closing stages of the event, Elliott was out in front. The No. 24 Chevy held the lead with three laps to go when suddenly, he ran out of gas on the backstretch. Elliott would finish the event in the 14th position after having the strongest car all day long.

It was a heartbreaking defeat for the 21-year old and a sign of things to come in 2017. Elliott led 106 laps at Phoenix in March only to finish 12th. Throughout the summer, he was consistent but could never get over the hump of that first win. As a result, he came into the playoffs 10th in the standings but wasn’t considered a serious title contender.

A pair of runner-up finishes at the start of NASCAR’s playoffs changed that theory. Elliott finished second at Chicagoland, losing to Martin Truex Jr. The following week at Dover, it looked like Elliott would finally end his winless drought. He led 138 of the races’ 400 laps and was out in front of Kyle Busch late in the race. However, as the long run at the end continued, Busch closed the gap on Elliott through lapped traffic. Chasing down his rival with just two laps to go, Busch got past Elliott and sped ahead to victory.

It was a dejecting defeat but not Elliott’s most memorable. He found himself in front again late in the race but this time, it was in October at Martinsville Speedway. With just three laps to go, contact between he and Denny Hamlin sent Elliott into the outside wall hard, ending his day.

Chase displayed his frustration with Hamlin after the race, including running into his car on the cool-down lap. The two even got into a verbal altercation at the end of the event on pit road. He finished the season with three consecutive top tens and wound up fifth in the standings.

Elliott had the most consistent season of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers. He showed signs of visible improvement in 2017 and it’s only a matter of time until he finds himself winning races and contending for championships.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt was looking to come back from a 2016 season that was cut in half due to concussion-like symptoms. It was refreshing for Junior Nation to just see him back in a race car. However, they would have to wait a little bit longer than what was scheduled for Earnhardt to return to action.

Alex Bowman was in Dale Earnhardt Jr’s No. 88 Chevrolet in the Advanced Auto Parts Clash at Daytona. Earnhardt elected to sit out and give his seat to Bowman for the 75-lap event. Bowman did a great job, finishing as the highest Hendrick Motorsports driver. He wound up third behind winner Joey Logano and Kyle Busch. It was a nice run for Bowman in his lone Cup race in the 2017 season.

Before the Clash, Earnhardt had already made headlines. During qualifying, Earnhardt put his No. 88 Chevrolet on the outside of the front row, next to teammate Elliott. If Junior Nation was rooting for 2017 to be a championship season, Earnhardt was starting on track.

He and Elliott led the field to green for the Daytona 500. Just past the halfway point of the event Earnhardt, a two-time champion of the event, found himself in the top spot. Then, out of nowhere, Kyle Busch blew a tire, spinning right in front of Earnhardt. With nowhere to go, the No. 88 ran into the side of Busch’s Toyota and slammed into the outside wall, ending Earnhardt’s day in the 37th position.

Little did we know that was going to be Earnhardt’s final performance in a race where he had so much success. After the Daytona 500, the struggles continued for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. The No. 88 car lacked speed all season long and by the time the Food City 500 was run in April, Earnhardt was 24th in the standings with one top-five finish. The season needed to turn around quickly if he wanted to make the playoffs.

The next day, however, Earnhardt’s career and life would change forever. April 25, 2017 would become a date everyone would remember as he announced his retirement from the sport following the 2017 season.

“I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Earnhardt said. “I wanted to honor my commitment to Rick, to my sponsors, to my team, and to the fans. I’ll admit that having influence over my exit only became meaningful when it started to seem most unlikely. I wanted to be able to make that decision myself on retiring and not really have it made for me. But I feel healthy.”

From that point forward, Earnhardt’s season became much different. Suddenly, the focus had turned from on-track performance to a celebration of his career. Every week, racetracks would give Earnhardt gifts. Among the many received were his dad’s car from the 1979 season given to him from Talladega Superspeedway. Indianapolis Motor Speedway also gave Dale part of the scoring pylon.

Meanwhile, on track the team continued to struggle. During the summer months, it was clear that the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization was lacking speed. Earnhardt’s team seemed to be a victim of that. The bright spot of his season were back-to-back top-10 finishes at Michigan and Sonoma in June. But by the time the team entered the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August, Earnhardt was still 22nd in the standings.

The next day, the team announced their pick to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet in the 2018 season. Bowman, who had stayed at Hendrick Motorsports throughout the season, was selected by Rick Hendrick. Bowman will take the controls of one of the most popular rides in NASCAR history.

“Ever since I was a kid, racing is all I’ve wanted to do,” Bowman said. “I’ve had so many people believe in me along the way. My family has sacrificed a lot and always been behind me. I would never have this chance without the support of Dale and everyone involved with the No. 88 team. To be part of Hendrick Motorsports and for Mr. Hendrick to have this confidence in me, it’s just amazing.

“The No. 88 team is such a great group of people. I know we can pick up where we left off last year, and I truly believe we can win races and contend for a championship. I’m excited to build on the relationship with Nationwide and all of our partners. It means the world that they have faith in me, and I’m thankful to have them on my side. Now, I just want to go win.”

Meanwhile, as the playoffs creeped closer, Earnhardt and his team continued to struggle on track. In the 10 races prior to the playoffs, the team failed to finish inside the top 10. Earnhardt finished the regular season 22nd in points without a win. That meant he would fail to qualify for the playoffs.

As the season wound down, the team recorded four top-10s in their last 10 races to send the veteran driver off right. Earnhardt made his final career Cup start at Homestead-Miami Speedway with hopes of a solid finish. It was a day filled with emotions for Earnhardt and his fans, driving a car that was thrown back to look like his car from the 2000 season. Earnhardt took several pictures with an also-retiring Matt Kenseth during the weekend.

But the race didn’t go as planned for Junior Nation. He ended up finishing in the 25th position at Homestead and 21st in the season-ending point standings.

Jimmie Johnson

Johnson started the season as the defending Cup Series champion. He and his team came into the season looking for a record eighth title. They were also looking for their third Daytona 500 victory. But that went out the window on lap 128 when he and Trevor Bayne made contact, resulting in a multi-car accident. Johnson finished 34th. The season started off on a bad note for this seven-time champion, but the team would soon find the speed they were looking for.

The No. 48 car would win at Texas in April and then the following week at Bristol Motor Speedway. Another win at Dover in June gave the team three victories in the season’s first 13 races. Much like their teammates, however, the No. 48 team would go into a midseason slump and could never get out of it.

A team known for leading a ton of laps and running up front, Johnson did not lead a lap in 11 straight races. By the time the playoffs came around in September, he hadn’t had a top-five finish since April. While the team’s struggles were more drastic this year, it’s not a trend we’re used to seeing.

The No. 48 car had been known to experiment in the regular season to make them better for the playoffs. Then when the postseason would come, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus would pick up their performance. Everyone expected the 2017 season to follow a similar pattern.

However, when the playoffs came, the struggles continued. Johnson and his team slumped badly. They led just two races during the playoffs, Dover and Martinsville, two of Johnson’s best racetracks. Knocked out in the third round, Johnson failed to qualify for the championship race at Homestead. He also didn’t register a top-ten in the final six races and failed to win for the first time in the postseason since it began in 2004.

It was a lost second half of the season for Johnson and the No. 48 team. They had three victories, but each came early in the season. Suddenly, at age 42 this veteran has become the oldest full-time driver in the series, making 2018 an important year in the quest for eight titles.

Kasey Kahne

Kahne came into the 2017 season needing to have success. He had failed to make the playoffs in the previous two seasons and, while his contract ran through the 2018 season, there were rumors that his status with the organization could be in trouble if there was not immediate improvement.

Kahne had a good run in the season-opening Daytona 500. He ran up front all day long and finished a solid eighth. He ran fourth the following weekend at Atlanta, one of Kahne’s best racetracks.

From that point forward, the team struggled.

He’d finish in the top 10 just once in the next 17 races and was sitting a 22nd in the series standings heading into the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was an accident-filled event but Kahne and his team kept missing the wrecks. Once the dust settled, the team found themselves in the lead in the closing stages of the event.

On the final restart, Kahne was able to hold off Brad Keselowski and win the race, going to Victory Lane for the first time since September 2014. It was a huge win. Keselowski admitted in victory lane that his future was in doubt even if the win locked him into the playoffs.

The victory, though did not erase the damage already done. Two of the team’s major sponsors, Great Clips and Farmers Insurance, announced earlier in the season they would not be back for 2018. Just two short weeks after his victory, it was announced that Kahne would not return to Hendrick Motorsports, as he and the team would negate the final year of his contract. That meant Kahne was a free agent after the season.

It was announced later in the week that young sensation William Byron would replace Kahne in the No. 5 car in 2018. The team will be renumbered to 24 for 2018 and Byron will compete for the Rookie of the Year title.

All this chaos was happening while the No. 5 team was trying to run for a championship. Right before the playoffs started, more news surrounding’s Kahne’s future broke.

The veteran, after several offers, accepted a deal to drive the No. 95 Chevrolet for Leavine Family Racing in 2018. The organization has yet to win a Cup Series event but had a decent year with Michael McDowell in 2017. It’ll be a challenge for Kahne, one he acknowledged in his press conference.

“I want to thank Leavine Family Racing for this opportunity and will work as hard as possible to help them continue improving,” Kahne said. “I look forward to making a fresh start.”

Now, the focus for Kahne and company had turned back to 2017. They ran the first race of the playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway and finished 21st. It was announced after that race that the team would have a new crew chief heading into the next race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Darian Grubb, who won a championship with Tony Stewart in 2011, was named as the new head wrench of the No. 5 team, replacing Keith Rodden. It was a curious move considering that they were just one race into the playoffs and the move could have been made before the postseason.

They finished the final nine races with Grubb at the helm, but he didn’t provide a much-needed spark. Kahne was eliminated after the first round of the playoffs and only recorded two top-ten finishes in the final nine races, finishing 15th in the standings.

Overview

Hendrick Motorsports got off to a decent start in 2017 but slumped throughout the summer months. Speed was an issue for the entire organization and it’s going to be interesting to see how the team responds with the new Chevrolet Camaro that is coming to the Cup Series in 2018.

The team is also going through a transformation to the next generation. In two years, Hendrick Motorsports went from a team with one of the oldest driver rosters in the sport, to one of the youngest. 2018 will be an interesting year as they lose both Earnhardt and Kahne in favor of twenty-something phenoms Byron and Bowman.

Social Media Nuggets

Earnhardt Receives Dad’s Car From Talladega

Earnhardt New Hampshire Musket

Earnhardt’s Michigan Gift

Earnhardt Gets Indianapolis Pylon

Earnhardt Parade Lap – Homestead

https://twitter.com/DSportINLive/status/938075507953938433

Earnhardt Homestead Celebration

Kasey Kahne

Kahne Thanks Fans

Kahne’s Goodbye To Earnhardt Jr.

Kahne Looks Forward To 2018

Kahne with son Tanner

Kahne With 2018 Camaro

On His Hendrick Teammates

On Winning The Brickyard

Chase Elliott

No. 9 Returns To Hendrick

Hosting the Opry

Congrats to William Byron

Jimmie Johnson

Las Vegas Burnout

Earnhardt Goodbye

Johnson At The CMAs

Kasey Kahne Goodbye

 

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About Clayton Caldwell

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Clayton has been writing NASCAR for the last seven years and has followed the sport for as long as he can remember. He's a Jersey boy with dreams of hoping one day to take his style south and adding a different kind of perspective to auto racing.

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One comment

  1. Avatar

    I know it’s not fashionable with all the adoration and fawning over Dale Jr on the retirement tour, but that was a half-a$$ effort this year coming from the driver’s seat of that 88 car.