Team Penske may have five wins in the first nine races of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, but if not for Hendrick Motorsports giving three of those five wins away, they’d be the talk of the sport right now.
Chase Elliott could very well be heading back home to Georgia for this Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway having won four straight Cup Series races and another NASCAR Truck Series event.
Elliott, was running second in the closing laps of the second race at the Darlington Raceway a couple of weeks ago. He was chasing down Denny Hamlin in front who had old tires on compared to Elliott’s. Instead, Kyle Busch made a rare lapse of judgement and crashed Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet. Then, the rain fell and ended the race 20 laps early.
A few days later, Elliott was leading the Coca-Cola 600 but his teammate William Byron brought out a late race yellow negating his large lead and pushing the year’s longest race to overtime. Elliott, hit pit road when a lot of others stayed out. They punted away a win.
He’d rebound to win the Truck Series race last Tuesday night and the rain marred Alsco 500 Cup race a week ago this Thursday. At Bristol last Sunday, Elliott won the first two stages and set his sights on earning his second straight Cup Series win in the Food City 500 at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway. He led 88 of the 500 laps and was in the lead on the final restart. Joey Logano battled him hard and the two made contact going for the win coming to the line for two laps-to-go.
They’d both crash, ending any shot of Elliott winning again.
“Just going for the win,” Elliott said of his incident with Logano. “Trying to get underneath and got really loose in. I don’t know if I had a flat tire going down or I just got loose on entry. As soon as I turned off the wall, I had zero chance of making it. I’ll certainly take the blame. I felt like that was my shot. He was really good on the short run and I felt like I had to keep him behind me right there in order to win the race. I hate we both wrecked. You can’t go back in time now.”
Elliott, will look to rebound this weekend in Atlanta. He very well could too. First, lets state the obvious, the fastest cars in NASCAR right now all reside in the Hendrick camp. Not only do they think it, their peers do too.
“I think the best group out there right now is Hendrick,” said Ryan Blaney who earned two third place finishes at Charlotte last week. “They have really great speed right now on the mile-and-a-halfs or the bigger tracks. I’ve seen it. They might not — they’ve kind of had some unfortunate circumstances, which is actually our team has capitalized on. The Penske group has capitalized on at a couple of them tracks, but Hendrick is really strong. I feel like we’re close with our group. We’ve just got to find a little bit more.”
Brad Keselowski, Blaney’s teammate, has won two of the last three Cup races and even he says HMS has the top speed over everyone else. They have won 10 of the 19 stages run, which is two more than they won for the entire 2019 season.
“We’re just a touch behind,” Keselowski said of their speed in comparison to Hendrick’s. “I think the mile-and-a-half’s, I would say Hendrick is definitely a little better.”
Sunday’s race is on a 1.54-mile track, an aged surface at that. HMS has been phenomenal on these types of tracks this season at that too.
“Atlanta last year was really an eye-opening experience for HMS,” Jimmie Johnson said. “When I look back at the year, that track is so hard on tires, really tells you what kind of aero balance you have, setup that you have to go with. We should have known then we needed to make some big changes.
“When I look at this year and going to California Speedway, that surface is a lot like Atlanta. I feel like Darlington, Fontana, Atlanta, those tracks kind of all act the same. They’re not identical, but pretty good comparison between them all.
” I’m really excited to go back to Atlanta. It’s one of my favorite racetracks to compete at. Been able to win there over the years. Of late it’s been tough for us. I really expect us to have a strong performance there.”
Alex Bowman said following his runner-up on May 17 at Darlington that their 1.5-mile program is vastly improved compared to the past and that he too feels like they’re the best at it.
“It’s really different than how we started the season the last two years,” Bowman said. “I feel like our cars, the biggest thing, when we’re off a little bit, we’re not running 20th any more. If we have a bad run, we fall back to eighth.
“I think that shows a lot about the strength of HMS right now. We’re just going to keep gaining on it.”
Now, here they are with a shot at another win. That’s a credit to the development of their car this past offseason.
“Well, it’s just Chevys in general,” Hamlin said on why Chase Elliott has been so fast this season. “They’re fast, and they’re really the only manufacturer that got to build a car directly for the package that we run. These other cars, the Toyotas and Fords, were built on the low downforce package and then we added a bunch of spoiler and splitter to them. Certainly there was an advantage knowing that, okay, this is the real package, how can we optimize downforce and drag, and I think Chevys have done that.”
Ford and Toyota won a combined 29 times a year ago. Chevy entered 2020 coming off of their worst two year stretch in NASCAR in three decades. But, they and NASCAR saw a deficiency from their car last year as to why an update was allowed this offseason. It was one that allowed the Camaro to run the way it was designed to.
“Yeah, without a doubt,” Johnson said of if he agreed with Hamlin’s comments made after Thursday night’s race at Charlotte. “That new Camaro has been a huge help for us. I think through last year’s events, and NASCAR taking the three makes, taking those cars after the race is over, blowing them in the wind tunnel, they saw the situation and they allowed Chevrolet to build a new Camaro and bring it out to get us up on par with the Toyotas and the Fords.
“This year we feel like we are much more in the ballpark and much more on an equal with them with the 550 package.
Last year, Chevrolet only won just seven races despite having a car specifically made for the new high downforce, low horsepower package. Ford and Toyota combined to win the other 29 with cars designed for the opposite racing package. When data was collected, Johnson says that their engine power overcame the cars deficiency, which was the cause for them being down in performance again.
“I mean, with the low horsepower, it’s really about efficiencies,” Johnson continued. “It kind of tells a story that back when we didn’t have these restricted engines, the Chevrolets were creating downforce kind of in an inefficient manner, but it didn’t matter because we had the horsepower to pull us through it.
“Last year it was pretty obvious when we raced the 550 package we had trouble. We couldn’t trim the car out to the lengths of the other manufacturers. After NASCAR studied it hard, they realized they needed to do something. They let us have a new car this year.
“Between that and I think a new engine block that they approved for the year, the engine block is a lot lighter and helps on days like today. It’s their job to keep the quality and they allowed us to make those changes and bring us up to par with the other two makes.”