2020 was always going to be a crucial test for Hendrick Motorsports in the NASCAR Cup Series.
The legendary organization had been a product of the youth movement over the past few seasons with the departures of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne, something that only advanced further when Jimmie Johnson announced in late 2019 that 2020 would be his final full-time season. The team was now faced with the challenge of sending off a seven-time champion properly, a driver that hadn’t won since 2017.
In addition to the overhaul, HMS also had to cope with a new body, as Chevrolet moved from the Camaro ZL1 to the Camaro 1LE. The move was made to overcome aerodynamic and drafting challenges the former body had faced.
The team also had not visited victory lane more than five times since 2015, a far cry from its past success as one of the series’ dominant organizations.
2020 started out strong for the team. After all four drivers faced challenges in the Daytona 500, they flexed their muscles in the next three races. Chase Elliott won the first two stages at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before a blown tire ruined his dominant day, and Alex Bowman was running down leader Ryan Blaney in the closing laps before a late caution and pit strategy took his shot away.
A week later, Bowman was standing in victory lane after absolutely dominating the the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. Elliott earned back-to-back top-10 finishes at Auto Club and Phoenix Raceway, and Johnson looked back in form with two top 10s in the first four races.
Knew it was going to be a good day! How about that, California? 🤘🏼 pic.twitter.com/RCP4TSQHVt
— Alex Bowman (@Alex_Bowman) March 1, 2020
At the time when the coronavirus pandemic shut the sport down for over a month, Hendrick drivers led teams in laps led and stage wins.
The shutdown itself was successful for HMS, as William Byron, formerly an iRacing phenom, won three races during the NASCAR Pro Invitational Series while Bowman recorded one.
When the sport returned to Darlington Raceway in May, Hendrick was strong off the truck. Johnson was half a lap away from winning stage one when a move to avoid hitting Chris Buescher ended with Johnson slamming the inside safer barrier. A handful of laps later, Byron blew a tire and slapped the wall. Bowman and Elliott were able to salvage the day with top-five finishes. Unfortunately for Elliott, he was on one end of drama three days later at the same track when Kyle Busch misjudged his room and turned Elliott into the wall, ruining a shot at the win for the latter.
The return from the shutdown brought ups and downs for HMS. The whole team appeared to have fast racecars but could not avoid bad luck. Elliott dominated the late stages of the Coca-Cola 600, but a late spin by Byron led to the No. 9 team pitting. Elliott managed to make it to the top five but fell short of the win. Bowman led over 200 laps in the Charlotte Motor Speedway doubleheader, but late-race restarts and contact with the wall hindered strong finishes. Johnson finished second in the Coca-Cola 600, but the No. 48 team failed post-race inspection and Johnson was given credit for a last-place finish. Byron also had strong runs, but a late spin in the 600 took away a solid finish.
The summer brought a mixed bag of results for the team. Elliott nearly won Bristol Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway during a stretch of three top 10s in four races before struggling to find the same speed he had experienced earlier on. A bright spot in the summer stretch for the No. 9 team was a win in the All-Star Race, Elliott’s first.
Byron faced many challenges with pit or mechanical issues and didn’t earn his first top five until the 25th race of the season at Dover International Speedway.
The heartbreak at Charlotte was only the beginning for Johnson. After four straight finishes of 11th or better following the Coca-Cola 600, Johnson finished outside of the top 10 in 10 straight races. He then found the top 10 in the next three races, including a top five at the Daytona International Speedway road course.
And after a start to the year that put his name in the championship mix, Bowman struggled mightily to find that same momentum over the summer. Following a runner-up at the first Darlington race, Bowman scored a top 10 only six times for the rest of the regular season, with one top five.
While Elliott and Bowman were safely locked into the playoffs, Johnson and Byron found themselves on the bubble. The two swapped the 16th and final spot at the Dover doubleheader and headed to the regular-season finale at Daytona with Johnson trailing Byron by four points and Matt DiBenedetto by 11. The points battle shifted throughout the night. and by the closing stages it was a toss-up. While battling to gain spots, Johnson was involved in a multi-car that took a huge toll on his chances. On the other end of the spectrum, Byron had the night of his life. Working his way to the lead in the closing laps, Byron held on after an overtime restart to earn his first career win 98 starts and ultimately a playoff berth.
While Byron celebrated a first, Johnson faced the sting of missing the playoffs in his last full-time season.
Incredible night!! I don’t know what to say. This moment is so special for myself and my team, thanks to all the people that have allowed me to get to this point. First Cup WIN!!! @LibertyU @TeamHendrick @TeamChevy pic.twitter.com/cyfthnhtKp
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) August 30, 2020
The Round of 16 was a solid one for HMS. Despite late-race contact with Martin Truex Jr. at Darlington ending Elliott’s hopes of winning, the 24-year-old finished fifth and seventh at Richmond Raceway and Bristol to cruise into the next round. Bowman opened the postseason with sixth and ninth at Darlington and Richmond to push him to the next round. Byron opened the playoffs with his third top five in four races, but a 21st at Richmond and a crash at Bristol ended his title bid prematurely.
The Round of 12 was even more productive for the remaining pair of Hendrick drivers. Elliott finished fifth at Talladega Superspeedway and earned his second straight win at the Charlotte ROVAL to advance to the Round of 8 for the fourth straight year. A fifth-place result at Las Vegas and an eighth at the ROVAL were enough for Bowman to advance to his first Round of 8.
Now facing the challenge of the Round of 8, both Elliott and Bowman were looking to clinch their first Championship 4 appearances. Elliott finished sixth at Kansas Speedway, but a loose wheel at Texas Motor Speedway relegated him to a 20th-place result. Bowman came on strong with a third at Kansas and a fifth at Texas. Despite these finishes, however, Bowman faced a must-win situation entering Martinsville Speedway, Elliott practically in the same territory.
While a sixth-place result ended Bowman’s playoff bid, Elliott was a different story, storming past Truex with nearly 40 laps to go to the win and a spot in the championship race.
Elliott’s ability to perform under pressure certainly stands out when looking back on 2020. In his first Championship 4 appearance, the second-generation driver was at a disadvantage. Having never won at Phoenix and going up against seasoned veterans, including two past champions, the task was tall for crew chief Alan Gustafson and Co. It was even more of a challenge when Elliott had to start from the rear after failing pre-race inspection twice.
However, the speed in Elliott’s NAPA Chevrolet immediately showed as he worked his way up to third by the end of the first stage and led the majority of the final stage, taking back the lead with 43 laps to go and sailing into the desert sunset to earn his first career title.
Elliott became the youngest champion since Gordon took the title in 1995. It was also Hendrick’s and Chevrolet’s first Cup title since 2016 with Johnson.
In addition to his first title, Elliott was named NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for the third year in a row.
2020 Champion!!!!! pic.twitter.com/n0egi9QZkh
— Chase Elliott (@chaseelliott) November 8, 2020
As Elliott celebrated his triumph and Dawsonville, Ga., prepared to sound the siren, the end of an era was completed. Johnson closed his full-time career on a high note, finishing fifth. He was met on pit road by a line of crew members, drivers and officials, a scene similar to Dale Earnhardt winning the 1998 Daytona 500. As Johnson took a Polish victory lap around the track, he crossed paths with the new champ. In a passing-of-the-torch moment for NASCAR and HMS, Johnson embraced the young Elliott for accomplishing the feat.
Seven championships, 83 wins and list full of achievements tell just a small portion of the story Johnson has written for NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) November 10, 2020
2020 also brought new changes for Hendrick. On Sept. 29, seven-time champion crew chief Chad Knaus announced he would be moving from the pit box for Byron’s No. 24 team to vp of competition for the organization.
It’s been an honor to work with you, @chadknaus. He has taught me lessons I won’t forget, and there’s been insightful conversations along the way. His new role will be great for HMS. https://t.co/SI2OiSUMmi
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) November 9, 2020
The team also announced in October that Bowman will move to the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet in 2021 to replace Johnson. His crew chief, Greg Ives, will continue to make the calls atop the box.
— Alex Bowman (@Alex_Bowman) October 6, 2020
Then, the organization announced that Kyle Larson, who was fired from Chip Ganassi Racing in April, would join the team to drive the newly renumbered No. 5, a number iconic in the organization’s legacy.
— Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) October 28, 2020
2020 could possibly be pointed at as the turning point for a resurgence at Hendrick if momentum continues. Elliott set career-highs in nearly every category. While Byron’s totals dipped a bit, he was able to earn a career-high 14 top 10. Bowman also saw dips in some categories but also set a career high in top 10s (15), laps led (440) and points finish (sixth).
And while Johnson didn’t earn the send-off many wanted for him, he finished the year with a top five and provided many moments that define who Johnson is on and off the racetrack.
The team landed three playoff drivers for back-to-back seasons and recorded seven wins, the highest for the team since 2015. While a legend in Johnson will not climb into a Cup car full time next season, the team will have a young, star-studded roster that will likely carry them for years to come.
What a day! I'll never forget all these incredible memories that I shared with family, friends, and the racing community.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) November 15, 2020
It’s been amazing to race alongside this legend @JimmieJohnson. Growing up I idolized him as a champion and a great race car driver, but he’s been an even better teammate. He drives every lap committed. pic.twitter.com/BEtXbPYvDX
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) November 9, 2020