The Hendrick Motorsports camp was the talk of the town for the early portion of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. They vastly improved in the speed department and their peers were taking notice.
“I think the best group out there right now is Hendrick,” said Ryan Blaney after the two Charlotte races at the end of May. “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.”
Denny Hamlin agreed, saying that their speed is a byproduct of their car being built for this package and that they finally have it right.
“Well, it’s just Chevys in general,” Hamlin said on why Chase Elliott was so fast at the beginning of 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. Through 17 races run in 2020, Ford has won over half of the races (10), including their first Coca-Cola 600 victory in 18 years. But, it’s Chevy that was supposed to be gaining the most speed.
Hamlin, noted that the Ford’s have actually had to work harder to catch Toyota and Chevrolet and what they’re doing is impressive.
“They built the Mustang nose for the low downforce, third place finisher Ryan Blaney said too. “The low downforce is what it was meant for.”
The big question coming out of this COVID-19 break was if they can keep the speed that they showed in the four races prior. Alex Bowman said that the pandemic was actually a good reason to why no one caught up to them in the 70 day absence.
“Yeah, I felt great the way we started the season,” Bowman said in Darlington. “Unloading in Las Vegas, I think we saw our racecars were going to be really strong. To continue that after we got shut down and firing everything back up, to continue the strength that we had means a lot.
“I think it was an interesting time period, right? Guys couldn’t really be in their shops developing new stuff. You weren’t allowed to be in the wind tunnel, simulators, all that stuff. Everybody is still at home working on their notebooks, trying to piece together what they can do to make their racecars better.
“In a sense it didn’t really give people maybe the complete opportunity to catch up, but it at least gave them some opportunity. I think for everybody at HMS to stay on top of things, improve our racecars, I think we didn’t just come back with what we had in Vegas and Fontana, I think we came back with something better. We need to keep working on it because everybody around us is constantly getting better, as well.
“It’s really different than how we started the season the last two years. 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, maybe everyone has caught up again.
From Daytona until Bristol in late May, HMS drivers had won 10 of the first 19 stages. At that part, Chase Elliott had the most speed as he could have easily won four of five straight races. Alex Bowman was next best with a top five car early on.
Unfortunately, their speed is gone.
HMS hasn’t won a stage since Jimmie Johnson’s stage win in Martinsville. That’s their lone stage win over the last 16 stages.
You can tell everyone else has caught up and there’s really no good reason as to why. When this resumption of the season began back in May, everyone said that HMS wouldn’t fade. Their speed was a byproduct of the of the changes Chevrolet was able to make to their cars.
See, the Toyota and Ford drivers said that this Camaro was made for this racing package. They finally had a chance to figure it out and would set sail on them.
Then, they started lacking.
Bowman, hasn’t had a top five finish since the first race back to racing on May 17 (0 in last 12). He was 19th on Sunday in Kentucky.
Elliott, has one top five in his last five starts. He finished 23rd this past Sunday.
William Byron hasn’t had a top five all year while Jimmie Johnson has just two top fives. Johnson, was leading the HMS charge before being spun by Brad Keselowski while running in the top five on Lap 248.
Johnson, tweeted after the race that he felt like he had a shot to end his 111 race winless drought and can’t wait until he gets behind Keselowski on the next restart.