Hendrick Motorsports went from the story of the year to being an after thought in a few short months. They started off the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season looking like their oldselves. Alex Bowman was vastly improved and an early season winner. Chase Elliott looked like the class of the field while Jimmie Johnson and William Byron appeared to be primed to earn victories themselves.
Then, everything has changed.
Elliott, did win last week’s All-Star race, but that’s their only bright moment in the last several weeks.
“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.”
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 18 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 13). His last three finishes are – 30th, 19th and 30th respectively.
Elliott, has one top five in his last six starts. His last three finishes have been – 11th, 23rd and 12th respectively.
William Byron hasn’t had a top five all year while Jimmie Johnson has just two top fives. Those are the two right now battling to even get into the playoffs.
Johnson, leads Byron by just two points. Johnson, has been 13th or worse in each of his last six starts on the year. Byron, has been 11th or worse in five of his last six tries. Does anything change this Thursday night in Kansas?
Elliott, has three straight top four finishes and four in his last five tries there. Byron, was fifth in last year’s playoff race. Bowman, was runner-up in the race last spring and has three top 11 finishes in his last three Kansas tries. Johnson, has two straight Kansas top 10 finishes.
If they don’t turn things around this weekend, it may be panic time — especially for Johnson who after missing the playoffs for the first time of his career last season, may be back in danger of doing so again this year.
Thanks to recent wins by Cole Custer and Austin Dillon, it took two spots away that a driver like Johnson so desperately needs. Look, he hasn’t won since Jun 2017 and looking again like that winless streak may never end. So, in order to make it to the postseason, he needs top fives and top 10’s. What about their pace would you think that they can consistently do that right now?
What if Tyler Reddick wins? He has three straight top 10 finishes right now anyways and only 14 points back of Johnson. What about Erik Jones? He has five top six finishes this season, three of which coming in the last six races.
What if the two August races at Daytona produces some wildcard winners?
Johnson, has to be uneasy right now. Kansas is going to tell a lot this week.