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Dr. Diandra: Driver injuries, penalties obscure Hendrick Motorsports’ excellence

Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty preview the 2023 Coca-Cola 600 and discuss what makes the track so difficult to navigate.

Hendrick Motorsports’ excellence doesn’t leap out from the Cup Series championship standings. William Byron is fifth and Kyle Larson ninth. Alex Bowman, who missed three races with a fractured vertebra, ranks 17th. Chase Elliott (out six races while healing a broken leg) is back in 28th place.

In addition to losing two drivers for multiple races, Hendrick fought a contentious battle over hood louvers it claimed didn’t meet specifications. The modifications initially incurred 100-point/10-playoff-point penalties for all four teams. An appeal reduced those penalties to monetary fines and crew chief suspensions.

Then, at Richmond, Byron and Bowman were each assessed 60-point/five-playoff-point penalties for violations involving their cars’ greenhouses.

Despite being far enough back in the standings that only winning will get him into the playoffs, Elliott has more points than five full-time drivers. Bowman ranks ahead of 15 drivers who have each run three more races than he has.

Without that 60-point penalty, Byron would be leading the standings, 18 points ahead of Ross Chastain.

The points don’t reflect how good Hendrick Motorsports is in 2023 — but the statistics do.

Manufacturer and team domination

Manufacturer advantage changes over time, as the graph below shows. Chevy has rebounded from its 2018 low point, where it won only four races all year. With eight wins in the first 13 races of 2023, Chevy has already beat its season totals from 2018 and ’19.

A stacked verticle bar chart emphasizing Chevy (and Hendrick Motorsports' excellence over the years

Chevy’s excellence translates to Hendrick Motorsports’ excellence. HMS earned five of those eight race wins.

That’s not unusual: Hendrick did the same last year. But this year the team did it with nine fewer chances. That’s not to discount Josh Berry’s solid subbing for Elliott and then Bowman. But no one expects a first-year driver (with a full-time Xfinity job) to match Cup Series veterans’ numbers.

Byron’s three wins are the most of any driver in the series. Larson joins Kyle Busch as the only other drivers with more than one win in 2023.

Byron also leads the series in top-five finishes with six. Larson, Chastain and Christopher Bell each have five top-five finishes. Byron is tied with Ryan Blaney for second in top-10 results with seven. Christopher Bell leads the top-10 category with eight.

Because two drivers have missed races, performance rates create a clearer picture than straight numbers. The table below summarizes HMS driver performance.

A table showing Hendrick Motorsports' finishines for 2023

I included Josh Berry’s numbers. No one expects a first-year driver (with a full-time Xfinity job) to match Cup Series veterans’ numbers, but he’s been quite a solid substitute driver.

As I pointed out previously, Larson’s numbers are low this year because he hasn’t finished almost a third of the races. The most DNFs Larson ever had in one season is eight, which happened in 2019. With 23 races left, Larson already has half that number. He has been the victim of incidents triggered by Chastain multiple times this season, leading to car owner Rick Hendrick voicing his displeasure about Chastain’s driving after the Darlington race earlier this month.

Another sign of Larson’s season is that he has only one more top-10 finish than Elliott despite running six more races than Elliott.

Running Stats

In distinction to finishes, statistics like running position and average green-flag speed rank show how a driver runs as opposed to just how they finish. These are the numbers that really highlight HMS’s potential.

A table showing Hendrick Motorsports' excellence via their loop data stats

I included average finish for comparing with average running position. For example, the difference between Larson’s average finish versus his average running position shows the impact of his DNFs.

The last three columns compare how each driver ranks, on average, in green-flag speed, speed early in a run and speed late in a run.

While Berry’s numbers are lower than his four colleagues, they’re not much lower.

The table below shows the same data but ranks each driver against all other drivers who have run at least three races.

A table showing how Hendrick Motorsports ranks in various loop data statistics

Hendrick Motorsports drivers hold the No. 1 rank in each of the first four metrics shown and the No. 2 rank in three out of the four. The highest rank in speed late in run is third, but their success despite that shows the importance of running in clean air. If you build a lead at the start of a run, you don’t have to be the fastest at the end — as Larson showed at the All-Star Race.

It’s a shame for the Hendrick drivers — and especially Alex Bowman, who was on track to have a statistically strong year — that their chances at a season championship may be impaired by missed races and unfulfilled potential. But it’s a good reminder for fans that season rankings rarely tell the whole story.