Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Don’t Break Up the (Hendrick) Band

In a fairly no-brainer move, Hendrick Motorsports announced today (May 5) that William Byron is going to remain with the NASCAR Cup Series team through 2025.

The news confirms that Hendrick, barring any contract breaks, is set to hold the same Cup lineup through the end of next season. Both Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson currently hold multi-year deals that will keep them at the team through 2023, while Chase Elliott is signed until 2027.

But is anyone really expecting this lineup to break apart once 2023 comes to a close?

And follow-up question: should it?

Entering the 12th race of the 2022 season this weekend at Darlington Raceway, each Hendrick entry has won at least one race, thanks most recently to Elliott’s Dover Motor Speedway triumph last weekend. In all, it’s captured five of the 11 trophies handed out this year, with Byron a two-time winner.

See also
William Byron Inks Extension With Hendrick Through 2025

In 2021, the four-car operation was similarly effective. Hendrick won 17 of the season’s 36 races — nearly half the schedule. Larson paced the group by far with 10 wins en route to the championship, but Bowman was no slouch at four victories, while Elliott and Byron contributed two and one, respectively.

So with Hendrick pretty much picking up where it left off in 2022, having won 45.4% of 2022 Cup races vs. 47.2 in 2021, it’s worth wondering if the Hendrick squad will be here for the long haul.

After all, it’s not like any one member of the group is lagging behind right now. Take the 2000s, for example. Despite standout performances from Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and others, there was often a concurrent weaker link at the organization, such as Brian Vickers or Casey Mears, who won once each during their Hendrick tenures. Even in the 2010s, Kasey Kahne had seasons with a goose egg in the win column, same with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Not so with the current crop. Even Elliott, the final Hendrick driver to visit victory lane in 2022, had been knocking on the door for a win and was the series points leader entering Dover.

It’s difficult to imagine there being greener pastures in the Cup Series right now. Elliott and Byron seem in it for the long haul, but even Larson doesn’t seem like he’d be quick to jet to another opportunity. Keep in mind that despite his title, sponsors still aren’t exactly clamoring to write a check to cover his NASCAR exploits. Through 11 races in 2022, Larson garnered Valvoline decals at Phoenix Raceway, but every other event has been virtually self-sponsored by team owner Rick Hendrick’s HendrickCars.com, much like in 2021.

Which is to say, could Larson even head somewhere else if he wanted to? Maybe Stewart-Haas Racing, where co-owner Gene Haas is known to fit the bill, or an organization with some capital behind it like Trackhouse Racing Team. SHR’s undoubtedly behind Hendrick right now on the whole, though, despite Chase Briscoe‘s early-season win, and while Ross Chastain‘s taken Trackhouse to victory lane twice this year, Chastain’s been one of the epitomes of a driver punching above an equipment’s weight in NASCAR for the last decade. That’s not to say the cars aren’t good, but is it worth the risk for Larson to jump ship if his results tend more toward Daniel Suarez at Trackhouse (or hell, Kurt Busch at 23XI Racing) than Chastain?

Larson, barring a surprise step out of NASCAR to dirt full time, seems set. Which leaves Bowman, a driver who’s exceled with a team that gave him his first real Cup shot as an Earnhardt fill-in. There’s something to be said for loyalty, and Bowman seems like the type who wouldn’t forget where he came from.

He’s also got backing from Ally, itself a sponsor that precedes Bowman at Hendrick, back to the Johnson days. As long as Ally’s happy and Bowman’s content, would he bounce for another opportunity? Maybe, especially if there’s a chance at becoming top dog at an organization, but is that worth leaving a cushy gig at Hendrick, especially if Ally doesn’t follow?

It behooves Hendrick to try to keep these guys, too. This isn’t just the most consistently good lineup in Cup racing right now, it’s also one of the best the team’s ever managed. After a more hit-or-miss late ’10s of which I imagine Hendrick won’t want a repeat, a few years of stability probably look incredibly enticing — especially if Larson can start attracting more sponsorship dollars.

Plus, and perhaps this is sacrilege to say, is the NASCAR Xfinity Series-to-Cup pipeline for Hendrick … really that full of can’t-miss talent? JR Motorsports’ current roster includes Justin Allgaier, who’ll likely finish out his career in the series. Sam Mayer may have the highest ceiling of his teammates, but he doesn’t strike one as ready for the big leagues just yet. Josh Berry has been an incredible story in Xfinity, but at 31 years old, is he ever going to be a bona fide Cup prospect at a top-level team like Hendrick?

And that leaves Noah Gragson, perhaps the biggest question mark of the bunch in a world where the current Hendrick drivers stick around for an extended period of time. Byron’s extension means Gragson still won’t be a Hendrick Cup driver in 2023, barring a surprise development, but it’s hard to argue against his pedigree when it comes to being ready for a shot at the premier series, especially with his two-win start to the 2022 season.

See also
5 Points to Ponder: There's a Monster on the Track, & Its Name Is Hendrick Motorsports

Thing is, Gragson seems to be playing the field a little. He’s got the Kaulig Racing Cup starts this year, and that’s a team that seems set for a long stint in the sport, with expansion always possible. Or there’s his superspeedway races with Beard Motorsports, whose partnership with Richard Childress Racing could translate into a ride with RCR down the line if Tyler Reddick eventually bolts or the organization adds a full-time team.

Exit strategy, basically. And that’s probably for the best, because it’s not clear at this point that Gragson would be a better Cup driver than the four Hendrick’s currently got. Five years from now, sure, maybe Gragson will be tearing it up for another team while, say, Bowman’s on the decline. Fine, try to bring him into the fold then. But for now? He’s likely a short-term loss, and possibly not even a long-term gain.

So Byron’s locked in through 2025? Great. Elliott’s at Hendrick until 2027? Cool. Sometime in the next 12 months, Hendrick should do the same for Larson and Bowman, keeping the dynasty intact as long as it’s working.

Because it sure is working right now, and there’s no obvious alternative that would make the team even better. Why bother messing with a good thing?

About the author

Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.

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johndawgchapman

The Hendrick org. has historically had a weak sister among it’s teams. This lineup is the strongest I ever remember.

If there’s a change to be made in the near future, I’d expect it to be in the support staff. I can see a crew chief, car chief, or engineer being hired away for a better deal, under the right circumstances.

Echo

Larson isn’t going anywhere anytime. Rick and Jeff brought him back from the dead he said so his loyalty is to HMS. He’s a nascar champion because of them. Larson has all the sponsors he needs.

Echo

Looking at the drivers starting grid I don’t see how bubba and Kurt can’t help but finish in the top 20 this year. Especially in JGR cars.

Jkad

I’ve read that Larson has multiple sponsorship opportunities but the Hendrick Cars people don’t want to give up the name on the car after such a strong 2021. After his success last year I’m sure there are sponsors calling Mr H

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