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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

2-Headed Monster: Is Hendrick Motorsports’ Future in Trouble After Worst Season?

Hendrick Motorsports is the definition of a NASCAR team. Over its 35-year existence, the team has won 12 championships and over 250 races. Recently, the team has struggled badly, not placing a driver in the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway since Jimmie Johnson‘s improbable and potentially final title win in 2016.

The lack of presence up front from the winningest organization in NASCAR history has led to the question as to whether or not we should be worried about the future of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s Clayton Caldwell vs. Vito Pugliese one last time in 2019. Let the debate begin!

It’s More Than Just the Camaro

I believe for the first time in their history it is time to panic for Hendrick Motorsports. A lot of folks point to the Chevrolet Camaro as the reason that Hendrick has struggled over the last few years. However, I think Hendrick’s struggles go back even further than that. Let’s take a look at when their “struggles” started.

In 2015, Hendrick Motorsports won nine races. In 2014, the team won 13 races. The year before that, they won nine. In 2012, they won 10 races. That means from 2012 to 2015 the organization won 41 races. That’s an average of just over 10 races a year.

Since 2016, that number has fallen drastically. They won only five in 2016, five in 2017, three in 2018 and four in 2019. That’s an average of just four wins a season and a drop-off of six race wins a season in just four years.

If you take a deeper look at the numbers, it gets worse. For the sake of time, I won’t do that. But the point is since 2016, the stats have dropped off significantly. Guess what? That’s two years before the Camaro even graced the track for a Chevrolet team. This problem is deeper than the Camaro.

One of the most underrated factors in NASCAR is that it is a people’s sport. Great people win championships, not great cars. It’s why you see some teams struggle when they buy equipment from a championship-caliber organization. They may have acquired the good equipment, but the people make the difference.

One of the things I admire most about Hendrick Motorsports is its willingness to promote from within. Pretty much every crew chief the organization has hired over the last 10 years has come from within the organization. All four of the crew chiefs who finished 2019 at Hendrick Motorsports are guys who are all considered “Hendrick guys.”

One of the most fascinating things about that is the organization has two of the longest-running crew chiefs in the business in Chad Knaus and Alan Gustafson. Knaus’ career as a crew chief began in 2001, and Gustafson was first on the pit box in 2005 with Kyle Busch. Of crew chiefs with competitive teams, only Rodney Childers and Greg Erwin have been around as long as Gustafson. No one has been around as long as Knaus.

With Knaus and Gustafson leading the way, is it possible that Hendrick Motorsports’ old ways are no longer working?

The other two crew chiefs on the team don’t have big resumes. In his five years on the box, Greg Ives has visited victory lane only four times. Cliff Daniels’ tenure with the organization has only been 15 races, but Jimmie Johnson’s finishes didn’t improve much after they made the switch from Kevin Meendering. Meendering was brought up to the organization from JR Motorsports and replaced Knaus, who left Johnson after 2018 when he was switched to William Byron‘s team. Meendering was fired after just 21 races.

Meendering’s quick hook makes you scratch your head about who else the organization has for the future. Notice how they went with a very unconventional move and hired Daniels, an engineer with no crew chief experience to take over the No. 48 team. They bypassed every crew chief at JR Motorsports.

Speaking of JRM, that organization struggled badly in 2019 as well, winning just two races and lacking speed all season long. Hendrick uses JRM as a breeding ground for its future employees. If that team is struggling, what does that mean for Hendrick’s future?

Let’s take a look at the driver situation, too. Hendrick used to have one of the most impressive lists of drivers in the garage area. Right now, they have a 44-year-old Johnson, who hasn’t won a race in over two seasons, Chase Elliott, who has been the lone bright spot for the organization, and Alex Bowman and Byron, both of whom are unproven.

The thing that scares me the most about this situation is the future. Johnson just announced on Wednesday (Nov. 20) that he will retire after the 2020 season. The biggest problem is there is no clear favorite to take over the No. 48 car.

Noah Gragson appears to be a few years away, and JR Motorsports recently signed Daniel Hemric, but he’s not a shoo-in for that ride at all. Remember when they signed Kasey Kahne a year before there was even a seat available? Hendrick always used to be a step ahead of teams when it came to hiring drivers. Now, they could enter the 2021 season with three unproven drivers and Elliott. Yikes.

That leaves the burning question: Is there something deeper going on at Hendrick Motorsports? Has Rick Hendrick lost his “magic touch”?Maybe it’s time for Hendrick to bring in someone from outside the organization in to help figure out the issues, because the internal options haven’t seemed to be helping the situation much.

Given all that, how can you not be concerned about the future of Hendrick Motorsports? – Clayton Caldwell

A Time of Transition — Not The Titanic

With Wednesday’s announcement that 2020 will be the final year for Johnson to compete full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, it gives one pause for thought as to just where HMS stands within the NASCAR landscape.

Hendrick has for all intents and purposes been the New England Patriots of NASCAR for the last 25 years. From Jeff Gordon’s defining years in the mid-to late ’90s, Terry Labonte’s 1996 championship, coupled with contributions from the No. 25 team of Jerry Nadeau and Joe Nemechek, the team that made multi-car winning teams a reality and the norm in Cup seemed to be a perpetual force that rarely, if ever, stumbled. When Johnson joined the Cup ranks in 2002, he was instantly a force to be reckoned with, eligible for the championship under the “old” points system that was a cumulative year-long battle well into the final few races of the year.

Regardless of the generation of car, HMS has always been the team to beat. When the Gen-5 car debuted, Gordon and Johnson never skipped a beat. When Mark Martin came out of self-imposed part-time exile in 2009, he won five races at 50 years old and went down to the wire with his teammate for the championship. Dale Earnhardt Jr. got his mojo back before concussions cut his career short, Johnson scored a record tying seventh championship in 2016, and Elliott seemed poised to pick up the torch after both Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon exited for TV careers .

So to go two years in a row with no Hendrick car in the Championship 4 begs the question: What exactly happened?

There are some that will point to Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. leaving virtually at the same time. Resources were diverted to get Elliott up to speed and winning after finishing second seven times and not winning until his third season, as well as to get both Byron and Bowman up to speed in 2018. The effort even ended up bringing Knaus over to Byron for the 2019 season. This, coupled with significant sponsor changes, has seen one of the most stable outfits in the sport be in a whirlwind of transition the past few seasons.

Even with all the change that has been in motion, none of this is the true reason for the regression. I would pin virtually everything on the same thing that has hamstrung virtually every Chevrolet team the last two years, the change to the Camaro body. Remember it was at the 11th hour in 2018 that rule changes came down affecting the under-car aero that seemed to hamper the Chevrolet much more than the Mustang or Camry. A quick peak at the stat sheet will back this up. If you excuse Austin Dillon’s last lap Daytona 500 wreck-to-win move on the Ford of Aric Almirola, it wasn’t until August of last year that Chevrolet won its first race since Kyle Larson won Richmond Raceway in September 2017 — almost a year for the manufacturer that pins its legacy on success in NASCAR to even win a race.

And not just win one, try being remotely competitive in anything other than Talladega Superspeedway/Daytona International Speedway races.

2019 brought some new tweaks and a new package that took some getting used to for everyone. Perhaps for the first time in NASCAR history, the car on the track had significantly less horsepower than its showroom counterpart, and with it a lot more drag. The result? Seven wins, including three in a row for the Bowtie — but even that is a bit deceiving. Two of the wins were at Daytona and Talladega, with the Daytona win a rain-shortened event that was timed right by the “juggernaut” Spire Motorsports team of Justin Haley. Elliott scored another road course win at Watkins Glen International, while Bowman and Kurt Busch battled door to door in the closing laps to earn their wins for the year. The only Chevrolet to score a win in the playoffs was Larson at Dover International Speedway.

Other than that, not exactly a competitive year for Chevrolet. The Richard Childress Racing/Richard Petty Motorsports/Germain Racing trio of Camaros all pretty much ran within a few positions of each other all year, with the exception of Bubba Wallace’s standout performance at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

No GM team has been able to show the consistent speed everywhere that Toyota or the Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske Fords have this season. I attribute this to a combination of the inherent deficits of the Camaro, as well as the short-lived lifespan of the current car configuration. Chevrolet teams also don’t exactly play as well together as the Ford and TRD teams do as far as sharing technology and information. 2021 brings about a new generation car that will share little in the way of similarities with what we’ve come to expect a NASCAR stock car to be the last few years.

Think more Australian Supercars than The Intimidator’s Lumina and you’ll start to get the picture.

Has Hendrick banked its future on getting a leg up on the new car configuration in what will be the most pivotal year for NASCAR since 1979 or 2001? Rick Hendrick didn’t get to the top of the mountain and stay there for three decades by mistake. His statement Wednesday that he was totally blindsided by Johnson’s decision to retire is best consumed with a liberal dousing of salt, as it has been rumored that the announcement was coming and he said himself the decision would be made shortly after the end of the season. There isn’t a decal applied to the Axalta painted fenders of his cars without his expressed consent. This too is just part of the transition process and the reshaping of HMS for the next decade. No team is immune to the ebbs and flows of motorsport at any level, be it Roush Fenway Racing or Scuderia Ferrari.

My prediction? The Chevrolet teams muddle along through 2020, with Elliott being a player deep into the playoffs. When the new configuration of car comes to fruition in 2021, I fully expect both Elliott and Bowman to be contending for wins and championships and the current TRD dominance will tempered greatly. –Vito Pugliese

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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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24 comments

  1. Avatar

    I think the first sign that Hendrick was losing its edge was when Tony Stewart started beating them with Hendrick’s own equipment back in 2014, which was when Kevin Harvick arrived and won his championship with 5 wins that year, followed with 3 in 2015 and 4 in 2016 which was SHR’s last year running Chevys.

    No, the Camaro hasn’t helped, but clearly the writing was on the wall by then. It appears that the driver pipeline, possibly apart from Chase, isn’t as fertile as it used to be. Clearly they need to look at what they are doing before they follow in Jack Roush’s footsteps.

  2. Avatar

    I think it’s great. Hendrick stops the cash from rolling in and NASCAR stops handing him wins. Pretty hilarious actually. Best driver he has is baby chasie, which is sad. Guy cant drive at all. Hendrick just needs to shut the doors and call it a day. Let the real men drive.

  3. Avatar

    I would so go after larson. He can run the wall great and he just seriously has to run wide open and push harder to win races and putting himself in spots to win or wreck. I dominant chevy like hendricks cars would do him good and hes realky young still.

    • Avatar

      The WALL he rides bites him more often than it helps him, it seems. Over the years of course. He has taken that mantel of DANCES WITH WALLS from Sam Hornish Jr, rather nicely and comically.

  4. Avatar

    A lot of cringing comments in the above posts. Must be boomers who have nothing better to do than to hate on one of the best drivers to ever race in a Nascar race.

    I think Hendrick has not slowed down, just others have caught up, I do think the Camaro has some effect on this too. It was the most dominant car for years. I also agree with a comment above that this struggle may be due to GM not spending as much money as Toyota or Ford.

    Hendrick was showing improvement midway in the year. After the CC switch, Jimmie was running more consistent. Bowman could have won 2 or 3 more races, Chase was being Chase, and Sophmore driver Byron showed big improvements from last year. Hendrick has shown they have speed, just equipment failure at the end of the year (maybe testing new stuff?) stalled them out and Hendrick seemed to fade at the end of the race.

    Bowman, I’m still not sold on yet, but he’s solid, Byron can be the next big deal once he can close the deal on the last quarter of the race. Chase will be a factor soon, as experience comes into play..

    Maybe it’s time to look outside the organization for help? My favorite hockey team has had similar situations (worse) and they’ve finally started to wake up and get the needed person(s) outside the organization (coaching & management).

    Also wouldn’t be surprised if they come in with guns blazing for 2021/2022 when the car/engine comes into play.

  5. Avatar

    I think the problem is more of a Chevy problem than anything else. Ford and Toyota have consolidated their engine programs into one supplier (Roush-Yates and TRD). Chevy still has Hendrick and ECR building engines. Also, Ford and Toyota teams are better setup and encouraged to share information. This is where Hendrick might be the problem. They need to play nice with the other Chevy teams and get on the same page. I believe I read a big reason why Stewart-Haas left for Ford was information with HMS was a one-way street. HMS took all the good data from Stewart-Haas and didn’t return the favor. I think its premature to pile the dirt on HMS’s grave yet. They had speed this season, but just couldn’t get consistent finishes.

    • Avatar

      UPSTAATE9FAN JUST BE PATIENT NASCAR WILL MAKE A RULE CHANGE FOR 2020 YOU CAN BET YOUR HAT ASS & OVERCAST ON THAT

      • Avatar

        Well Ben, according to “Charlie” (see his comments below) Chevrolet already got rule changes so what rule change do you think they will make for 2020?
        PS: Turn CAPS off….

  6. Avatar

    Mr. H lost his advantage when Brian disappeared. But at least JJo got his 7 gifts.

  7. Avatar

    This is complicated. The other manufacturers have gotten better. You look at Hendrick speed, and it has not declined. It is deeper than a few quick antidotes. First, General Motors was the only NASCAR brand that took Federal Bailout Money in 2008 to avoid bankruptcy. That allowed the Obama Administration to place priorities at GM on electric and hybrid technology. It also reduced the amount of money GM had to spend on its racing endeavors. During that time, the signed John Force Racing in NHRA, and are the sole provider in the professional class Pro Stock. GM through the Chevrolet brand also sponsors an engine program in Indy Car Racing and has its Corvette Sports Car Teams.
    With reduced cash because of the bailout and re-organization directed by the Government overseers, the GM NASCAR teams fell behind. It only takes a little being behind to all of a sudden be way behind.
    NASCAR, to its part, has issued technical bullitin (rule changes) to assist them to get caught up and to improve chances. William Byron admitted as much when he spoke of how hard they were working to implement them. But they are behind and current GM Management does not see the benefits of NASCAR as opposed to NHRA.
    It is not the end for Hendrick or Chevrolet. Not sure the new body style will help, only time will tell

  8. Avatar

    Thanks to Clayton for providing the stats…

    A couple of things come to mind:

    1) Did Tony Stewart see something within the workings of the Hendricks organization (possibly Chevrolet as well) that foretold this stumble? Recall, Stewart/Haas announced February 2016 they would be switching to Ford for the 2017 season. This coincides with the drop off in performance shown by the Data Clayton provided. Harvick in Haas/Hendricks Chevrolets finished 1, 2, and 8 in 2014, 2015, 2016 final season standings. Then 3rd in Haas/Fords each season of 2017, 2018, 2019. Meanwhile, starting in 2014 Jimmie has finished 11, 10, 1, 10, 14, 18.

    2) No reason to watch the 2020 season at all (unless you’re a Jimmie Johnson fan). You thought the “Final 4” TV coverage was horrendous at Miami? Try a whole season of that over JUST 1 DRIVER. The other 39 cars might as well not even show up for all the coverage the won’t be getting.

    3) IF Jimmie Johnson fans tune in with big numbers, the 2021 car will be ruined. NASCAR will fail to see the TV ratings bump is due to Jimmie Johnson’s retirement tour and will incorrectly believe their fuddling with the car and totally mucking it up was a major success.

    • Avatar

      I would think it will be exactly the way it was when Gordon, Stewart and Earnhard Jr. recently retired. No more, no less. If you made through those years you should be strong enough to weather the JOHNSON RETIREMENT TOUR.

      I doubt next year’s ratings will change what they do with the new car.

      • Avatar

        You’re probably right about Jimmie’s retirement tour being no worse than Tony or Jeff’s.

        It won’t be ALL about Jimmie, they will probably split all the TV time 50/50 between Jimmie and Chase. 😉 lol

        I’m still worried about the 2021 car… just scared that if ratings overall are even slightly better next year (for any or no reason at all) NASCAR will think the restrictor plate, *ahem* tapered spacer, and big rear spoiler are a hit – and should be fitted to the new car. Sure hope I’m wrong and my paranoia is unwarranted.

        • Avatar

          You know, where NASCAR is concerned, I wouldn’t bet against that scenario. They usually do the exact opposite of what I would like them to do. However I really think the ratings increase will be minimal during the regular season. If he pulls a Jeff Gordon in the final 10 then, yes, there will be a substantial bump in ratings. But by that time, so much money and effort will have been spent on the new car that there will be no going back.

  9. Avatar

    I hate when athletes announce they will retire at the end of the next year,season, whatever. Why can’t they just play their last game or participate in their last “race” and say they’re retiring and go away? Because they want the long appreciation tour where everybody fawns over them and, if we choose, we get to “enjoy” it for a year. And there is always the chance for a change of mind.

    • Avatar

      DoninAjax – i always felt that if sr had gotten that 8th championship he would had hung up his helmet. could not see him doing goodbye tour.

    • Avatar

      As a Gordon fan, I know that I was very happy that they announced his final season BEFORE it started. That allowed me to savor the last chances I would get to watch him race. So my answer to you is that they don’t do it for their ego, they don’t do it for ALL NASCAR fans, they selfishly do it for their own fans.

      So think about this. My favorite rock band, RUSH, announced that the 2015 tour would be their last tour. As it was, the concert closest to me was in Manassas VA (I live near Baltimore). I also went to the Dover spring race every year from 1997 to 2016 (purchasing tickets months in advance). So as luck would have it the concert was the night of May 30th, the Dover race was the next day. To make a long story short, I didn’t get home from the concert until 4AM and had to turn around and be up to go to Dover at 7AM. Had I not known that was his final year I probably would have bailed on the race figuring there was always next year. So, while it wouldn’t have been an end of the world hardship, I would have always been mad at myself for missing my last chance.

      So, yeah, above all it’s for his fans. While I just want to see the Johnson era end as much as the rest of his non-fans, I can empathize with his fans and I hope they enjoy this last ride. And as I’ve said a few times on this very website over the last several years, I only want to see Johnson win one more time, the final year of his career (but I draw the line at the 8th championship, I have no desire to see that..

  10. Avatar

    when i heard he was retiring at the end of the season, first thought was the goodbye parade. selling tickets for johnson’s last race at whatever venue it is at that particular week. maybe since the sponsor had recently renewed for a period oif time came into play also. at least they get exposure that way.

    i seriously don’t think he’ll contend for #8. but stranger things have been known to happen with na$car, last minute rule change about allowing the driver retiring this season to make the playoffs to sell tickets and keep interest might help with that goal of getting #8.

    would hendrick move the ally sponsorship to another team in 2021 and just field 3 cars? who knows. would kyle larson go into the 48?

    • Avatar

      Kyle Larson is too old to be the new driver of the 48. They’ll pick an 19 year old who won the Snowball Derby by beating Chase. And for a lot less money.

  11. Avatar

    Jimmie claims he still has a hunger, yawn. Jimmie for some time (TO ME) has shown via his social media his interests lie elsewhere. From what was shown via reporting websites that show these things. He seemed rather content. Good for him.

    With that said. I wish and wonder why after this, another lackluster season HE DID NOT RETIRED RIGHT NOW??????? Why not?

    I can only think of ego and the shit show parade and commentary of all 36 freaking races telling us how great he is..YAWN and plenty to say about that BS. It will happen…..NASCAR loves their long goodbyes…blown up, done to death.

    He has not won a race in 95 races! 95!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Let that sink in…

    What I worry about is…with this long drawn out SWAN SONG BS is all of a sudden YIMMIE will start WINNING AGAIN, WINNING BIG…and the NASCAR media lemmings will rejoice, cheer, rinse and repeat a thousand times…and then…if Yimmies wish comes true from the story tellers at Castle Daytona, number 8 will be a reality!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Go away now, just go away.

    He is a non factor, has not been for years and will be a disruptor for next year, getting in the way of the producers because NASCAR will deem it as such. The attention he is going to get will be theft against those that deserve the spotlight of realilty 2020! IMO

    Go, Go, Go the West beckons you now…go….

    • Avatar

      The announcers will also spend all 36 races talking about who will replace him.

    • Avatar

      Its always been “the Cars”. Nascar finally got their grids and romer arms dialed in in 2016. Now Hendricks is in Nascar’s jail and unfortunately drug all the Chevrolet teams with them.