In an early season filled with surprises, Hendrick Motorsports may be the biggest of them all.
While three of their four drivers made the playoffs last year, only one of them finished in the top 10 in points. Chase Elliott was 10th, William Byron was 11th, and Alex Bowman finished 12th in the standings. There are a lot of team owners who would welcome those kinds of results.
Rick Hendrick is not one of them.
This is an organization that won their first championship in 1995 with Jeff Gordon. They claimed their 12th championship in 2016 with Jimmie Johnson. And they’ve been looking for the next superstar ever since. On occasion, Elliott has been able to run with the Big 3, but his ability to finish well under the pressure of the playoffs has been inconsistent.
Elliott has run so well in the first four weeks, however, that we named him as one of the New Big 3 so far this year. It remains to be seen if he can keep that momentum alive through what is shaping up to be a crowded schedule once NASCAR returns to action.
Right now, all fantasy owners have to go on is the first four races of 2020. Since the Daytona 500 is not predictive of anything racers face for the remainder of the season, it can hardly be used to handicap events on unrestricted tracks. So all we really have to analyze are the last three races.
That is enough to draw some general conclusions about Hendrick Motorsports, however.
All four drivers have run well. All of them have top-10s to their credit in the last three weeks and all but Byron is in the top five in points.
They have been landing at the top of the NASCAR Statistical Services’ charts on a regular basis with high marks for Average Running Position, Driver Rating, and every other strength-based category we track.
Given the aerodynamic struggles for Chevrolet last year, perhaps the most encouraging stat has been that all four Hendrick drivers have average rankings among the top 10 in Green Flag Speed on unrestricted, intermediate speedways. The numbers are similar in regard to speed on restarts.
Bowman is the only Hendrick driver to win this year, but his Auto Club 400 performance was absolutely flawless. He also had a car capable of winning at Las Vegas the week previously, although Elliott was arguably stronger. If not for a tire problem in that race, the No. 9 would have been one of Bowman’s fiercest challengers.
Elliott also had a shot at winning the Daytona 500. He stayed out of trouble for most of the event and was leading until his car was damaged on a late-race restart. Even with battered machinery, he might still have challenged for the victory if not for a last-lap accident that dropped him outside the top 15.
Johnson has shown consistency with one top-five, a seventh-place finish, and a 12th in the last three races. He’s been at his best on the similarly-configured, 1.5- and 2-mile tracks – and that is where he’s dominated in the past. Johnson has one goal in mind, and that is to win one of the first 26 races so he can qualify for the playoffs in his final full time season.
At the start 2020, Johnson winning seemed a little farfetched. If it came at all, we suspected it would be because of a strategy call or in a wild card race like the superspeedways or road courses. His speed at Vegas and Auto Club raises his odds of getting a head’s up victory on a weekend when he and crew chief Cliff Daniels gets the setup perfect.
Byron is still seeking his first career win, but he’s come close twice. One of these was on the short, flat track of Martinsville Speedway where he finished second to playoff contender Martin Truex Jr. last fall. Two of his five top-fives have come on the 2.5-mile flat tracks of Indy and Pocono.
At the start of the season, we had only Chase Elliott ranked among the top 10. Bowman and Byron were just outside that mark in 12th and 13th respectively. Johnson was ranked at 19th. After the first four weeks, those numbers seem to be low and one should not be surprised in all four of their contenders make the playoffs.
In fact, it seems reasonable to expect all of them to qualify for championship contention with a win. How they perform in the playoffs will be a matter of who brings the most momentum into the final 10 races.