Hendrick Motorsports is one of the best teams to ever compete in the history of NASCAR competition. But, they’re now entering a new era starting in Daytona this month. They went from Jeff Gordon dominating in the 90s onward to Jimmie Johnson after and now it is up to Chase Elliott as this is his team moving forward.
Elliott, won the Most Popular Driver Award the last three years as well as the Cup championship in 2020. Can he keep this team moving forward in 2021?
“There is no defending,” Elliott said on Monday. “We need to be on offense. We need to keep pushing. I think if you’re back on your heels and trying to protect something, I don’t think your mind is in the right place.
“We want more. We’re not trying to play defense. We just simply want more. That needs to be our outlook and keep it as simple as that.”
Gordon retired a few years ago and Johnson is now gone too. The team is in Elliott’s hands now.
He’s made it to at least the Round of 8 for four straight years now and he and Alan Gustafson seem to have something special going. But, Elliott hasn’t typically been very good in the Daytona 500 in the past and trends aren’t on his side either.
Elliott, has made five starts in this race with finishes of 37th, 14th, 33rd, 17th and 17th respectively. He was runner-up in last August’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 though, so there’s reason for hope. But, only five times has the reigning Cup Series champion came down to Daytona the next February and actually won the Daytona 500. The last time that it actually happened was in the year 2000. Its only happened twice since 1978 overall.
He’s the leader now though, so does this change?
See, HMS has gone a lot younger. Normally, they stick to veteran drivers, but now all four are under the age of 30. Kyle Larson is the oldest driver on the team at 28 years old. Alex Bowman is 27, Elliott 25 and William Byron just 22.
Larson, well he comes in with some baggage. He was the hottest free agent at this time last year but unfortunately used a racial slur on Easter night and it cost himself his ride at Ganassi and possibly his racing future. But, he did everything right afterward to prove that he made a mistake and that he’s not a racist and willing to own up to it and show that he can be a good person. Rick Hendrick took a chance on him despite no financial backing and put him with the team for 2021 after Larson showed that he was deserving of a second chance.
“I feel extremely grateful,” Larson said. “I never really thought I would get another chance to race in NASCAR and I kind of accepted that throughout the middle of last year and I tried to shift my focus towards what’s ahead in my new life of racing a bunch, driving up and down the road and stuff like that. I was trying to figure out how that would be with my family, my kids, once they start school. So, yeah like I said, I’m grateful for the opportunity that Mr. H has given me. It’s pretty unbelievable and I’m very thankful. I hope to do a good job for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and all my sponsors – just do a good job on and off the track to really take advantage of this second chance that I may not have deserved.”
The California native has a fresh start with a top team now. This is his best shot at a championship now. Can he live up to it? Kasey Kahne also had this anticipation in the drivers seat when he joined HMS and it unfortunately didn’t work out. Can Larson? The pressure is on for sure.
“I think with the success I had in the dirt stuff last year, winning 46 times, I’d like to be able to come back to NASCAR, being with an amazing organization that just won the championship, go out there and be strong and win a lot of races, too,” he continued. “I had a 50 percent win percentage last year. Obviously, I know that’s probably impossible to ever happen in NASCAR. But I’d like to be competitive each week, win a lot of races and hopefully contend for the championship.”
In terms of Daytona, Larson has never scored a top five in 25 career superspeedway starts. He also has six finishes of 29th or worse in them. While Larson was seventh in 2019 and 10th last year, his other four of his other five finishes were 12th or worse in the big race.
With a spotlight on him during these Speedweeks, what can he do?
He said he also feels like his work off the track isn’t done yet either.
“I think I do have a lot to prove off the race track, showing people who I really am and showing people the good person that I know am,” Larson continued. “Yeah, I think there is definitely a lot I need to prove on and off the race track, and I’m looking forward to getting that started here in a few days.”
Bowman and Byron may actually be HMS’ best shots at a win. The problem there is, Bowman shifts from the 88 to the 48 and he’s never scored a top five finish at Daytona before. Can he do so on Valentine’s Day?
Byron has new life with being reunited with his Truck Series crew chief in Rudy Fugle. Chad Knaus steps into a larger team role now. Byron, ended 2020 strong and won a Duel at Daytona last February and was second in the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400 and won his first and only points paying Cup race right here last August in the ‘400 again.
He finished last in the 2020 Daytona 500. Can he win this year to go from last to first?
HMS has had bad cars in the Daytona 500 recently. For some reason, they just haven’t had the grip levels to contend. Their cars are wrecking loose.
They’ve only won two of the last eight Daytona 500’s and those came back in 2013 and 2014. They are one win shy though of tying Petty for most Daytona 500 victories overall for an organization at nine. Is this new era for them going to start out great?
HMS is also close to catching Petty Enterprises for most wins all time. They’ve got 263 career wins. Petty has 268.
“I’ve thought about that a lot as we kind of got closer to it,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “The Petty organization will always be the backbone of the sport, and Richard will always be The King.
“We may end up more wins than they did, but what they have done for the sport – Richard’s been with Presidents, (and) he is kind of the person that when you mention his name, it helps our whole sport. So, I’m a little humbled to think I’m going to maybe, one day, pass his record of wins, but I don’t think I’ll ever – (though) I would love to – contribute as much to the sport as Richard Petty, and the Petty organization has.”