Hendrick Motorsports is no stranger to success in the NASCAR Cup Series. During the careers of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, there were several seasons where championships by either the Nos. 24 or 48 teams seemed practically automatic.
But since Johnson’s final title in 2016, Hendrick had lost its advantage over the rest of the field. Facing an aging driver lineup, a redesigned car from Chevrolet and new rules packages, HMS had to do some rebuilding.
That was then, though. In 2021, Hendrick reigned supreme once again.
After some positive results at the end of the 2020 season, culminating in a championship for Chase Elliott, HMS rolled over its competition to a degree not seen since the glory days of Gordon and Johnson.
Top honors at Hendrick went to the team’s newest driver, Kyle Larson. In addition to winning the 2021 Cup title, Larson racked up 10 wins plus the All-Star Race.
But what made Hendrick particularly dangerous in 2021 was the strength of all four of its teams. Larson and Elliott may have been the ones racing for the championship last month, but Alex Bowman and William Byron enjoyed the best seasons of their Cup careers as well.
Just how dominant was Hendrick this year? Larson, Elliott, Bowman and Byron combined to win 17 races. That is 47.2% of the entire Cup season that went to just one organization. Additionally, Larson’s win in the Coca-Cola 600 allowed HMS to surpass Petty Enterprises as the winningest team in the history of the Cup Series. It was also one of six consecutive victories that Hendrick scored during the late spring and early summer.
Then, during the playoffs, HMS capped off the season with another five straight wins. Suffice to say that 2021 was a good year to be driving a Hendrick Chevy.
It’s likely that no one was more thankful to have Hendrick equipment at their disposal than Larson. Throughout his time with Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson’s history of near-misses and struggles to close out races left some wondering if he was really performing at his ceiling or if joining a more consistently strong team would yield better results for the California native.
Larson made the most of his new opportunity, scaling heights he had never reached before in the world of stock car racing. Along the way to the championship, he claimed the regular-season title, at least one win in every round of the playoffs and two different streaks of three race wins in a row. Larson also led 2,581 laps in 2021, the most circuits paced by any Hendrick driver in a single season since Gordon led 2,610 laps in 1995.
Simply put, Larson and his team found a level of speed for which no one had an answer, and it carried them to a championship in their first year together. After 2021, there should be no more doubts about Larson’s capabilities at a stock-car racer.
Larson’s dominance overshadowed a good championship defense by Elliott and the No. 9 team. After scoring two wins in the regular season, Elliott survived a few close calls in the playoffs to compete against Larson, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. in the championship race. Preseason predictions of Elliott dominating the road course events in the Cup Series did not come true, as Larson turned out to be the No. 9 team’s biggest obstacle on the road courses.
But Elliott was still able to earn 15 top fives (equaling his total from 2020) and 21 top 10s (one less than 2020). He also made it to the final round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year and is one of two drivers who have advanced to at least the third round of the postseason for five years running.
Of the Cup drivers who are currently less than 30 years old, Elliott has been doing the best job navigating his way through the playoffs, feuds with Kevin Harvick notwithstanding. Perhaps he and Larson can keep providing the 1-2 punch Hendrick once had with Gordon and Johnson.
As for Hendrick’s other drivers, it is important to remember where they stood a year ago compared to their accomplishments in 2021. Prior to this season, Byron had shown potential to run up front from time to time. However, he and the No. 24 team had not found the ability to race for wins on a consistent basis.
The missing piece of the puzzle was a reunification with Byron and Rudy Fugle, his crew chief from the Camping World Truck Series in 2016. Byron and Fugle found Cup success quickly, earning the first win of 2021 for Hendrick at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Byron did not win again in 2021, but there is no doubt that he had his best season. He earned 12 top fives after beginning the year with a career total of nine. Perhaps more importantly, Byron spent the majority of the regular season in the top five in points. The Homestead win was not simply a case of a team hitting the right setup for one early-season race before fading into irrelevancy. Byron finished in the top 10 for the next 10 races after his win. He even enjoyed some of his best runs of 2021 late in the season after being eliminated from championship contention. This year was a great step forward for Byron, a driver who could be on the verge of a breakout in 2022.
Bowman had faced similar problems to Byron in recent years, although a deep playoff run in 2020 signaled that better things might lie ahead for the Arizona native. One year later, Bowman has tripled his win total in the Cup Series. Taking the wheel of the No. 48, Bowman visited the winner’s circle four times in 2021, an excellent accomplishment for a driver who had never had a multi-win season before.
What Bowman lacked in consistency, he made up for in efficiency. Half of all his top fives resulted in wins, and he only led a combined total of 133 laps in the races he won.
Bowman kept finding his way to victory lane and displayed quite the flair for dramatic wins. His winning moves included snookering the field on a late restart at Richmond Raceway, swooping into the lead in the final corner of the final lap at Pocono Raceway when Larson blew a tire and spinning Hamlin out of the lead in the closing laps at Martinsville Speedway. If not for a rough second round of the playoffs, Bowman would have made it to the championship race.
Bowman’s other win, at Dover International Speedway, marked a special moment for Hendrick. Bowman, Larson, Elliott and Byron earned the first-ever 1-4 finish for HMS, becoming only the third team in Cup history to accomplish that feat. That race, more than any other, encapsulated why 2021 was so special for Hendrick.
HMS drivers have recorded dominant seasons like Larson had from time to time, and in doing so they usually far outpaced their teammates. It has often been characteristic of Hendrick’s teams to have at least one car that struggles to keep up with the others over the course of a given season.
The 2021 season was relatively unprecedented for Hendrick in that one car did not significantly struggle compared to the others. Bowman might not have had the consistency of his teammates, but he won more races than Elliott and Byron combined.
All four drivers had their moments in the sun and made valuable contributions to the revitalization of the team. The sleeping giant that was Hendrick has woken back up.
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