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What does the future hold for Hendrick Motorsports?

Hendrick Motorsports has struggled the last three years trying to contend for a championship. Here is why this offseason is the most important one yet.

Austin Konenski
What does the future hold for Hendrick Motorsports?
Chuck Gafrarar of Hendrick Motorsports cleans Chase Elliot s car during NASCAR Champion s Week at Riverfront Park Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn. Sem 4304 // © Shelley Mays / The Tennessean, Nashville Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Saturday night, Hendrick Motorsports will venture into the final race of the Round of 16 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott are currently in place to transfer to the Round of 12, which is one of the most unpredictable rounds of the whole NASCAR playoffs schedule.

William Byron currently sits three points below the cut-off line as he looks to progress into a round where he has had tremendous success in the past. But what about seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson?

Johnson goes into Bristol with eight races left in his full-time NASCAR Cup Series career. It’s not been an ideal season for the No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro driver. Johnson missed the Brickyard 400 due to COVID and then missed the playoffs. The results of the next eight weeks, even the last three years, aren’t indicative of Johnson and his legacy.

The past is what makes him the legend he’s become. The 44-year-old California native has been the leader at Hendrick Motorsports since Jeff Gordon’s retirement in 2015. Since then, he has accumulated eight wins and one championship, while cementing himself undoubtedly as one of the greatest race car drivers of all-time. But all of HMS has been struggling to compete since then.

What has been the source of struggle for Hendrick Motorsports since 2015? Do they really have hope on the horizon or could it become similar to the downfall of Roush Fenway Racing?

Hendrick Motorsports versus other four team organizations since 2015

I looked back on the average finish of the three organizations with four cars, dating back to Jeff Gordon’s last season in 2015. The results themselves show that Hendrick Motorsports is behind Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing.

Hendrick Motorsports

  • 2015: 9 wins – Average: 13.98 (Jeff Gordon’s final season)
  • 2016: 5 wins – Average: 15.15 (Elliott’s Rookie)
  • 2017: 4 wins – Average: 17.05
  • 2018: 3 wins – Average: 17.0 (Byron’s Rookie)
  • 2019: 4 wins – Average: 15.45
  • 2020: 4 wins – Average: 15.25 (28/36 races)

Joe Gibbs Racing

  • 2015: 14 wins – Average: 15.14 (Kyle Busch injury)
  • 2016: 12 wins – Average: 12.75
  • 2017: 8 wins – Average: 13.38 (Suarez Rookie)
  • 2018: 9 wins – Average: 13.35
  • 2019: 19 wins – Average: 11.10
  • 2020: 7 wins – Average: 13.05 (28/36 races)

Stewart-Haas Racing

  • 2015: 5 wins – Average: 19.06
  • 2016: 6 wins – Average: 16.07 (Tony Stewart’s final season)
  • 2017: 3 wins – Average: 16.73 (Danica Patrick’s final season)
  • 2018: 12 wins – Average: 11.88
  • 2019: 4 wins – Average: 14.25
  • 2020: 9 wins – Average: 13.15 (28/36 races)

During the last six years, Hendrick Motorsports has only one year with an average finishing position of under 14.0. During the 2015 season, they had a lineup consisting of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earhnardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Ever since then, they have had an average finishing position higher than 15.0.

Since 2017, both Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing have better average finishes than Hendrick Motorsports. Whether it has to do with experience or the Chevrolet bodies, an average year for Hendrick would be a disappointment to the other two organizations. Even this year, their averages as an organization are 2.0 positions lower than JGR and SHR. Hendrick Motorsports lacked speed since returning from the COVID-19 hiatus. Although, they have been clicking as of late and have consistently been running top-10 and near the front.

Before the Playoffs, statistics showed they might not be far off from other organizations, but the eye test showed differently. Every week, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing were outperforming Hendrick Motorsports. Not only those two organizations but Team Penske also showed more speed as well.

Is it a case of drivers contending in their primes or is it the equipment that has been a step-down? Many drivers such as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. have been great the last four to five years. While on the other hand, Hendrick Motorsports has introduced two rookies and one then-unknown driver into the team during this stretch.

What does the timeline of Hendrick Motorsports suggest?

There have been a number of different factors that have caused Hendrick Motorsports to struggle compared to others. In 2016, Chase Elliott, the son NASCAR great Bill Elliott, joined the organization after his second year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Elliott replaced Jeff Gordon in the famed No. 24 car and ran well for a rookie.

Hendrick Motorsports didn’t accomplish much during the year itself, but when it came to the playoffs, Johnson stepped up his game and went on his way to winning his record-tying, seventh NASCAR Cup Series championship. Gordon also substituted for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he recovered from his concussion. Gordon’s final race was Jimmie Johnson’s win at Martinsville.

Alex Bowman earned his spot with Hendrick Motorsports after splitting duties with Gordon in 2016 after Earnhardt Jr. was sidelined with a concussion. In 2017, Bowman spent the year serving as Hendrick’s simulator and test driver. The season for HMS started out well, but Johnson’s performance tapered off, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne left the organization at the conclusion of the season. When Earnhardt Jr. retired, Bowman filled the vacant seat in the No. 88.

Completing their current lineup created consistency

In 2018, William Byron took over the No. 24 as a rookie while Elliott moved to the No. 9. Byron sped through the lower ranks of NASCAR due to his extremely competitive nature. Although, Elliott was the only driver to secure wins in 2018. Johnson was unable to capture a win during the season for the first time in 16 years. Since the current HMS lineup has been set, Byron has been unfairly criticized for the last three years due to his struggles. Did anyone actually expect a driver with limited stock car experience to compete right away?

After solidifying their lineup of the future, the focus went towards the 2019 season. Johnson was unable to win a race for the second straight season and Elliott won three of the four races for Hendrick Motorsports. Bowman won his first career race at Chicagoland after holding off Kyle Larson. Once again, Hendrick Motorsports did not have any of its drivers as a threat for the championship.

On November 20th, 2019, Jimmie Johnson announced he would retire from full-time racing at the conclusion of the 2020 season. Johnson has been close to winning races this year and shown speed capable of winning. Elliott has won two races at Charlotte and the Daytona Road Course, while Bowman won Auto Club before the COVID-19 hiatus. Byron won the final race of the regular season and has been hot as of late with three top-5’s in the last four races. With three drivers in the playoffs, perhaps there is some hope for 2020 still.

With all this in mind, what does the bottom line show?

Hendrick Motorsports’ struggles are of their own doing

While other organizations have veterans that are entering their prime, Hendrick Motorsports continues to run with young drivers with little winning success in the NASCAR Cup Series. Outside of Johnson, the three other HMS drivers (Elliott, Byron, and Bowman) are an average age of 24.3 years old. Young drivers do not typically run like Jeff Gordon did right away. It takes years for drivers to grow into true championship contenders.

Byron is an insane talent, but he only spent two years in the Truck and Xfinity series. He did win the Xfinity Series championship in 2017, but the Charlotte native was only 20 years old when he entered the Cup Series. For comparison, Leavine Family Racing driver Christopher Bell spent four years in the Truck and Xfinity Series and entered Cup this year at the age of 25. The short term gain for Hendrick Motorsports was not good. Byron only managed four top-10’s in his first year and failed to reach victory lane in his second year. The upside to Byron is his long-term gain of running the No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports.

Was Alex Bowman a questionable hire?

The real question when it comes to their decision of drivers is Alex Bowman. Was Bowman really the right decision with drivers such as Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski as potential options? Kenseth was on the outside looking in at Joe Gibbs Racing at the conclusion of the 2017 season due to Erik Jones. Keselowski also was going to be a free agent until he restructured his contract with Team Penske. Bowman did get three top-10’s in the No. 88 car in 2016, but was it really enough to gain a seat at HMS?

Bowman was the simulator and test driver for Hendrick Motorsports, but what if they signed Kenseth to the No. 88 for two years? Another veteran presence within the organization would have greatly helped them as a whole. Instead, young NASCAR Xfinity Series star Tyler Reddick moved to Richard Childress Racing because it was the best decision for his future. Most of this contributes to Bowman taking over the No. 88. Hendrick Motorsports could easily have a lineup of Johnson, Elliott, Byron, and Reddick right now if they played their cards right. The stars of the future on that team would’ve been a troubling sight for other organizations.

Bowman could prove me wrong, but Hendrick really messed this up. Given the opportunity, any organization would take Reddick knowing what he can become. Although, the blame cannot all be placed on Hendrick Motorsports and their decisions. Chevrolet has been rotating bodies for the last two years. Last year was a disaster for Chevrolet as a whole. Then they changed their bodies again for 2020. Unfortunately for them, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and ended practice for the year after four races. Chevrolet drivers then went to tracks for the first time in a new car for the majority of the season. As we enter the playoffs, many tracks that NASCAR is going to are for a second time. This should help them possibly make a run in the playoffs.

Who will be Jimmie Johnson’s replacement?

It might be the talk of silly season at this point. Who will replace the seven-time champion at Hendrick Motorsports? Many names have been floated around as possible candidates. Such as Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace, and Kyle Larson. But who really makes sense for HMS?

Erik Jones

Erik Jones is only 24 years old and that would make Bowman the oldest driver at 27. Jones doesn’t bring much sponsorship which is a concern for an organization that is struggling to fund two cars. The majority of Bowman’s races are sponsored under Chevrolet Goods. That will not cut it when it comes to a long-term future at HMS. Does it make sense for Hendrick to bring in the 24-year old Michigan native and add to a young bunch of drivers? No, not really. It seems more likely somewhere like Chip Ganassi Racing would take his services.

Bubba Wallace

What about Bubba Wallace? After it was announced that Wallace would not return to Richard Petty Motorsports after 2020, speculation began to ramp up over where he would land. It was reported that Chip Ganassi Racing pulled their offer off the table and that Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t have an offer out for him. Although, his sponsorship really makes him an appealing option. Wallace could take over the No. 88 and Bowman could secure a full-season sponsorship with Ally in the No. 48. The only concern is that Wallace has never won a NASCAR Cup Series race. He hasn’t done enough to truly earn the ride based on performance, but HMS does have a history of adding drivers like him such as Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Kyle Larson

This is the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to Johnson’s replacement. Kyle Larson was suspended due to an iRacing incident in May. Many have thought Chevrolet wouldn’t even consider bringing him back, but Bob Pockrass’ article saying that Hendrick could sway the manufacturer to let Larson drive for them states otherwise. Look, some people might think Larson should come back yet. But he’s done his time and will have missed 32 races at season’s end. Larson will be back in NASCAR. It’s going to happen, but it’s just a matter of when. This is the perfect opportunity for Rick Hendrick to steal Larson. He’s cheap, talented, and can compete for a championship right away in 2021.

The cards are in Rick Hendrick’s hands

There is not another driver currently available that can bring those three main factors to Hendrick Motorsports. Wallace has sponsorship and can be brought at a low price. Jones can bring potential, but after struggling with Joe Gibbs Racing, what says he can be any better? Larson fits the bill. He won four races in 2016 with Chip Ganassi Racing. The equipment that they are bringing to the track is mid-tier. Look at what Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch are doing in it. They have no wins and Busch might not even make the Round of 12.

Rick Hendrick can’t mess this up. One simple mistake of hiring a driver that doesn’t fit can set their organization back for years to come. Hendrick Motorsports has struggled according to its standards in the last four years. Now, with the top free-agent in all of NASCAR possibly in his hands. He fumbled away a shot at Tyler Reddick. But now, he has an opportunity he’ll only have one shot at it.