Did You Notice?… A changing of the guard at Hendrick Motorsports in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series? Chase Elliott became the first driver for HMS to win in 2019, also breaking the season shutout for Chevrolet. His push to the win at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday (April 28) came courtesy teammate and second-place finisher Alex Bowman.
Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, had himself a horror story of an afternoon. A blown tire sent him careening into the outside wall early and he was never a factor. The 33rd-place finish left him clinging to 16th in the point standings, just four ahead of Paul Menard for the final playoff spot.
In the past, we’d head to the Monster Mile, Dover International Speedway, thinking Johnson’s ills would be cured this weekend. It’s the last place he won a MENCS event and his 11 career victories there are a NASCAR best. Johnson’s led more laps at Dover alone (3,105) than his three teammates have led in every race in their Cup Series career… combined.
But it’s Elliott, not Johnson, who’s the storyline as he seeks his second straight MENCS win at Dover. Since 2016, Elliott’s average finish at the track is 4.3, complete with a win and five top-five finishes. That easily eclipses teammate Johnson over the same timeframe as his winless streak in Cup approaches two years.
DOVER MENCS CUP STARTS – SINCE 2016
Elliott: One win, five top fives, five top 10s, 149 laps led
Average Finish: 4.3
Johnson: One win, two top fives, four top 10s, 106 laps led
Average Finish: 13.5
It’s just one of many ways in which Elliott has eclipsed Johnson in on-track performance. Since the start of the 2017 season, Elliott has four wins, one more than Johnson, and 25 top-five finishes to Johnson’s seven. In the process, the 23-year-old upstart has risen to a level of top-tier Chevrolet contender while the 43-year-old mentor? He’s holding on to his seven championships for moral support.
The year started out promising for Johnson, who actually outraced Elliott early this season. New crew chief Kevin Meendering after a public divorce from Chad Knaus injected new life into the No. 48 program as early as Daytona Speedweeks. Johnson was victorious in a controversial Advance Auto Parts Clash exhibition, then wound up ninth in the Daytona 500. A pole at Texas Motor Speedway last month came paired with a fifth-place finish and 60 laps led, the most for him in a single event since Bristol in early 2017.
But Elliott, after a slow start, has easily reclaimed the Hendrick mantle once more. All of his 167 laps led this season have come in the last five races. He’s now surged to seventh in the standings, the highest of anyone driving a Camaro these days.
The turning point for Elliott came at Martinsville, perhaps Johnson’s second-best track of his career aside from Dover. It was there he served as Brad Keselowski’s main foil, the only car to pass him en route to a second-place finish. Johnson? He ran 24th, two laps down, in one of the most disappointing Martinsville performances of his career.
Not only did Johnson’s team not get the handle right, he was slow to the point he was in the way at a track where the No. 48 has never had much of a problem. In 35 career starts at the paperclip, Johnson has finished off the lead lap just five times. Three of those were due to mechanical problems or wrecks. Simply put, we’ve never seen that lack of speed there from the seven-time champion before.
Elliott still hasn’t eclipsed Johnson in other ways. The 2018 NASCAR Most Popular Driver has just 816,000 Twitter followers to Johnson’s 2.64 million. His Instagram following (287,000 vs. 423,000 for Johnson) is slightly more comparable but it’s clear Johnson has an engrained following built over decades of competition.
It’s going to be hard to flip that without a breakout season of some sort that culminates in a series championship. Who knows if Elliott can get there this year with the Fords and Toyotas seemingly miles ahead on intermediate tracks?
But we know this much for certain when it comes to HMS. Byron, now in his second season, has seen limited improvement with Knaus at the helm. Bowman’s runner-up finish at Talladega was his first top-10 result of the year; he’s also yet to fulfill his top-tier potential. And Johnson, whose contract runs through 2020, is not even a guarantee to be racing full-time come February 2021.
Make no mistake; there is no changing of the guard at HMS. It’s already happened, the transition complete during Johnson’s 2018 struggle. The seven-time champ may still have one last wave of competitive brilliance; we saw with Jeff Gordon what can happen when the end of the road is near.
But right now, Elliott stands alone at HMS and perhaps Chevrolet with Kyle Larson having every type of bad-luck moment imaginable. He’s the man capable of keeping HMS competitive heading into the next decade and who you build a team around.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Short tracks and superspeedways are the best opportunities for Bubba Wallace to cash in with a single-car program. But not only did he get involved in that early Talladega wreck Sunday, his average finish at those facilities is an ugly 28.2 in five starts. The road ahead this month doesn’t feel too promising for Richard Petty Motorsports either. There’s a whole lot of intermediate tracks on the schedule and very little in the way of momentum. So what happens when a lightly-sponsored program finds itself miles out of playoff contention in their second year with Wallace?
- The 10-point penalty assessed Tuesday (April 30) for Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing carries weight in a tight postseason race. It kicked him back to 14th, just nine points ahead of Menard. I found it notable considering the situation RCR chose not to appeal. What do they have to lose? There’s been a considerable tilt toward admission of guilt lately with these penalties rather than choosing to fight it out. Do teams feel like they don’t have a shot at overturning anything?
- Tyler Reddick won his first race of the year with Richard Childress Racing at Talladega and leads the point standings. Why isn’t there more buzz for him running Cup in 2020, especially since he paired with a program that has room to expand? The only NXS regulars with more victories since the start of 2018 are Justin Allgaier and Christopher Bell.