Remember last year’s Brickyard 400? The ending of the race was a hot mess. A multi-car crash brought out the yellow flag with 10 laps left in the scheduled distance, ending a long green flag run. From then on, it seemed that even NASCAR’s best could not go more than one lap without triggering another accident. The race finally ended under the setting sun and with Kasey Kahne kissing the bricks, earning the 249th Cup Series win for Hendrick Motorsports.
Well, eight months later, win number 250 has not happened yet. Not only did Hendrick’s team not show its usual speed in the playoffs, but the start of the 2018 season has been unusually chaotic for the organization.
The new Camaro ZL1 body has not been as strong out of the gate as expected. Through five races, HMS has only one top five, courtesy of Chase Elliott at ISM Raceway. That is the same finish that resulted in the No. 9 team getting hit with a 25-point penalty for illegal rear suspension components.
Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson is in the longest winless streak of his career. Sure, 28 races without a victory would be a dry spell for most of NASCAR’s elite racers, but by Johnson’s usual standards, he is lost in the Sahara. Not to mention that Lowe’s, Johnson’s longtime sponsor, will be leaving the No. 48 team next year.
If there is a silver lining in the clouds for Hendrick, it is that Monday’s snow-delayed race is at Martinsville Speedway. The track is undoubtedly associated with HMS’ greatest tragedy, the 2004 plane crash that resulted in the deaths of 10 people, including team executives and some of Rick Hendrick’s family members. Martinsville, however, has also been the site of some of Hendrick’s greatest triumphs, and a strong run there could set the team in the right direction.
It is worth wondering what the new Hendrick drivers, Alex Bowman and William Byron, are thinking these days. Neither has posted a top 10 yet, although Bowman has finished 20th or better in every race. Byron also has mostly middling finishes, the best being a 12th at ISM. Both drivers find themselves racing for the most dominant NASCAR team of the last 25 years. They have stepped into iconic rides. While Bowman is not a stranger to the Cup Series and Byron’s success in the lower divisions has turned plenty of heads, neither of them has been in the spotlight this much. The pressure that they are feeling to perform, and perform now, must be enormous.
However, the team and its fans should be patient with these young racers. Bowman and Byron should not feel a huge sense of urgency. Johnson’s and Elliott’s results suggest that the entire team is in a rut, and it will take everyone some time to dig out of it. Once the HMS express gets back on track, Bowman and Byron will have a better chance of proving that they deserve seats in HMS cars.
In Bowman’s case, finishing positions do not tell the whole story. In most of his previous 86 Cup Series races, Bowman drove for BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing. For those teams, finishing 20th was a good day. Bowman’s 10 races filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016 were the events that better demonstrated his ability to compete for top 10s and even wins.
Bowman’s former role as HMS’ test driver is also important. While the general public did not get to see Bowman’s ability, Hendrick and his associates did. If Hendrick was not confident that Bowman could handle the No. 88 car, he had plenty of other drivers from whom he could have chosen. Even if the 2018 season does not turn out to be a great one for Bowman, it is clear that he has the team owner considers him to be a long-term solution.
As for Byron, it is likely that he will get better as the season progresses. Consider his statistics from his championship year in the XFINITY Series. Byron was new to that division in 2017, but he still earned four wins, 12 top fives and 22 top 10s in 33 starts.
Even more telling is the story of how Byron improved throughout the season. Beginning at Michigan International Speedway in June, Byron went on a run of eight consecutive top 10s, including three wins. In the seven XFINITY playoff races, he earned five top 10s and never finished worse than 18th. Obviously, XFINITY Series results are not always a great indicator of how a driver will fare on the big stage. Yet Byron has demonstrated that he is a fast learner and has proven his ability to adapt quickly to new surroundings. Like Bowman, he has earned the confidence of Rick Hendrick.
Even if Bowman and Byron feel the weight of their Hendrick Motorsports predecessors, both of them have good reasons for being in those cars. Johnson’s lack of speed and Elliott’s lack of consistency suggest that the mid-pack finishes of the Nos. 88 and 24 must be taken with a grain of salt.
Nobody at HMS would suggest that the team’s recent performance has been good, but the organization’s past success makes its current struggles look worse than they actually are. The same thing happened last year with Joe Gibbs Racing when Toyota introduced the new Camry for Cup Series competition. While the new body appeared to be holding JGR back at first, the Toyota teams emerged as the teams to beat in the playoffs.
The same thing could easily happen with Chevrolet and the new Camaro. And if Hendrick Motorsports gets in a groove, Bowman and Byron will be there to take advantage.
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