ONE: Hendrick Motorsports Breaks Through. Will It Last?
Alex Bowman wasn’t the only one celebrating from the Hendrick Motorsports camp at Chicagoland Speedway. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet scored his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory Sunday (June 30), but he was one of four HMS drivers to finish inside the top 11. Jimmie Johnson earned a season-best fourth-place finish, his best since Bristol in April 2018 and arguably had the best short-run speed. It’s also his top run at an intermediate track since winning Texas Motor Speedway’s spring race in 2017. Could the No. 48 team have finally found itself momentum?
There’s no question the other side of the Hendrick camp already has it. William Byron, who finished eighth, has now led a lap in seven straight Cup races. That’s a longer active streak than Kyle Busch, Joey Logano or Martin Truex Jr. In fact, when you compare, Truex has led in just seven races all year.
Sure, the time up front hasn’t led to a win. But Byron sits 12th in the series standings and has a healthy, 39-point cushion on Erik Jones. A postseason bid for him looks more like a reality each week.
And then, there’s Chase Elliott. The lone Chevrolet driver to win this season before Chicagoland, Elliott had his best performance (11th) since a streak of five top-five finishes was broken at Michigan last month. He’s still the best bet to make the Championship 4 from Hendrick as we head to the type of track (superspeedway) where he triumphed earlier this season. Since Elliott’s already clinched a playoff spot, his team’s ahead of the game as they’ve aggressively started tinkering with setups.
What caused the turnaround? Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives feels like it’s come from the manufacturer pushing all of its cars and crew chiefs to pool information. The Bowtie Brigade has more full-time teams (15-plus) than anyone on the Cup circuit.
“It’s really about us working together, working better,” Ives said. “Not just the No. 88 team, not just Hendrick Motorsports, but all of Chevrolet. I think that’s where we were behind, trying to think that we were smarter than all of us put together. I appreciate the No. 48 team, the No. 9 team, the No. 24 from my camp to help bounce ideas off of and build confidence off of some of the best in the garage.”
Let’s not get carried away just yet. HMS has still just won two of 17 races this season compared to 15 combined for Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing. But it’s hard to count out an organization that’s also won more titles (seven) than any other team in NASCAR’s postseason era. Stay tuned.
TWO: Stewart-Haas Racing Slump Digs New Low
Kevin Harvick flat-out dominated the first two stages at Chicagoland Speedway. It was clear the No. 4 Ford had more speed than anyone out in clean air. The race was his to lose after 121 laps led in the first 160.
But then he lost it.
A brush with the outside wall caused the fifth and final caution, cost Harvick crucial track position and wounded his potential winning race car the rest of the day. It’s the third time this year (Las Vegas, Kansas) he won a stage on an intermediate track only to step back when it really counts. The No. 4 team wound up a disappointing 14th, the latest on a long list of missed opportunities in 2019.
But the Harvick story is old news. This team and driver/crew chief pairing (see: Rodney Childers) is playoff bound and always seems to find a way to get it together. Their pit crew could use a revamp … but it’s fixable.
It’s the other Stewart-Haas Racing cars that struggled to find consistent speed, losing their cushion in the process.
One year after leading 70 laps and winning a stage at Chicagoland, Aric Almirola was nowhere to be found. He wound up 16th, scored just one stage point and sits 11th in the Cup standings. He hasn’t had a top five since Phoenix and has led just 28 laps the last 10 races (27 of them came at Talladega in April).
Daniel Suarez succumbed to tire problems, squandering a second straight potential top-five performance. A 24th-place finish, two laps down, left him 15th in the playoff standings and only 18 points above the cutline. But perhaps no one got hurt worse than Clint Bowyer, the victim of multiple flat tires turned ugly wrecks that left him sitting with a DNF in 37th. Bowyer now sits on the bubble, two wrecks in the last three races leaving him vulnerable to missing the postseason altogether. He’s led just 42 laps all year, down significantly from his total of 490 a year ago.
SHR, most importantly, remains winless while Team Penske continues to run circles around them at Ford. A team that had grand visions of its entire team in the Championship 4 last season must now worry about one, maybe more of its cars missing the playoffs.
THREE: NASCAR Playoff Bubble Survivor
And that’s where the 2020 edition of NASCAR musical chairs gets interesting. Suarez, Bowyer and Erik Jones sit dangerously perched on the bubble with their future employment seemingly at stake. For all three, missing the postseason may make the difference between remaining with their current top-tier program or looking elsewhere.
Suarez, to me, seems the most vulnerable despite being a better fit at SHR than most expected. His deal was reportedly a multi-year contract but sponsorship could always force an out clause. There’s one thing we know for certain: Cole Custer’s recent surge in the NASCAR Xfinity Series (four wins) has him moving into a SHR Cup ride sooner rather than later.
But could that promotion knock out the 40-year-old Bowyer instead? He’s never been able to land a primary sponsor that takes up a large chunk of the season on the No. 14 Ford. Bowyer is also one of NASCAR’s top 10 most expensive drivers, making $6.6 million in salary and winnings last year according to Forbes. No postseason bid a second time in three years combined with limited financial support make him expendable with Custer climbing up through the ranks.
Jones, of course, has the biggest target on his back, made bigger every time Christopher Bell wins a race. Joe Gibbs Racing picking up Bell’s 2020 option doesn’t automatically mean he’s moving up to the Cup Series. But Jones is armed with only one JGR win in a year and a half while his teammates have run out of room in their display cases. It feels too soon to pull the plug but with Bell more than ready to move up? We’ve never seen JGR miss out on an opportunity and they threw loyalty aside on Suarez the second Truex became available. Making the playoffs feels like a must for Jones to keep his job.
Right now, only two of these drivers are in. It feels unlikely that all three will make it. Let the dominoes fall where they may …
FOUR: Next Winless Breakthrough?
Bowman’s victory leaves just two drivers inside the top 20 in points without a career Cup victory: Suarez and Byron. It feels like Byron has the inside track to victory lane after Hendrick’s recent surge and seven straight races led.
But don’t sleep on Suarez, either, considering the circumstances surrounding SHR. Watkins Glen has been a top-five lock for him and last August produced a first-time winner there in Chase Elliott. There’s a desperation for him Byron will likely never have during his time with Hendrick. The only thing we know for certain is the next first-time winner is one of these two drivers unless Matt DiBenedetto pulls off a Daytona miracle Saturday night.
FIVE: Handling The Inconsistency Of NASCAR’s Handling Package
Is it just me or does NASCAR’s new, low-horsepower package for intermediates feel like a case of bipolar? There are races like Michigan a few weeks back where everyone just feels like they’re running in place outside of restarts. Two months in, there were more stinkers than strong performances, calling into question why NASCAR would sell this new look back in January as the best racing we’ll ever see in our lifetimes.
But a funny thing’s happened the past two months: The package has come around a bit. What’s weirder is it’s some of the most maligned racetracks in recent NASCAR history, Kansas and Chicagoland, that have put on two of the best intermediate track races. It’s clear nighttime helps (Kansas, Charlotte), and a raging thunderstorm that wipes all the rubber off the racetrack (Chicagoland) doesn’t hurt either.
But all is not perfect. Michigan left much to be desired, Pocono was an outright disaster and the road course at Sonoma proved to be a shocking disappointment.
What the sport needs is a few races in a row with this package where the racing is can’t miss brilliant. And that’s where there’s good news: Daytona is up next (with different rules), followed by a night race in Kentucky where this new package should adapt well. Can this sport go three races with nothing but good happening? It’s the perfect time in sports to do it, as baseball’s the only game in town.