DAYTONA Beach, Fla — The big teams are the big teams for a reason, but if Stewart-Haas Racing wants to get back to the front again and Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t want to drop down like SHR or Hendrick Motorsports did, they each need to solidify their futures.
I mean HMS went through some lean years in trying to carve their path back up. Now, they’re the top team in the sport again and all four drivers are going to be 29 years of age or younger during this upcoming season. To see what they’ve done, you truly have to rewind back to the early 90s to really appreciate where they started, where they are and where they came from to get back here.
Rick Hendrick has an eye for talent. In 1992, he discovered and signed a young USAC star that didn’t have enough money for an Indy Car seat. This young brazen kid was a Ford development driver, but Hendrick swooped in and took him Cup racing. He saw what he did in a Busch race in Atlanta and signed him 48 hours later.
Gordon, made his first career Cup start on Nov. 15, 1992. That was Richard Petty’s final NASCAR start. The “kid” would pan out just fine. Four championships and 93 race wins later, Gordon goes down as one of the best to ever race a stock car.
In 2000, Hendrick found another budding young star. He wasn’t necessarily tearing up the track in the Busch Series, but Hendrick and Gordon figured this guy deserved a chance. For the 2002 season, in came a guy named Jimmie Johnson.
Seven championships and 83 wins later, Johnson, like Gordon, will go down as one of the all-time greats.
Last year in this very race, Johnson, made his final Cup start at the Phoenix Raceway. It was a day that another driver that Hendrick found won his first career championship. That kid?
A year ago, Elliott, became the third youngest NASCAR champion ever at the age of 24. But, you had to rewind to a decade ago for this relationship to take shape. Hendrick, got a tip from a friend, a former NASCAR owner, about this second generation driver tearing up dirt tracks around the Southeast.
After witnessing it, Hendrick decided to call this kid (Elliott) and his dad (Bill Elliott) over to North Carolina to chat. He signed that kid. Hendrick, gave Elliott a contract at 14 years old. Now, that 14 year old is 24 and a NASCAR champion.
“I won’t name any names at our company, but I think a lot of people thought I was nuts,” Hendrick said last year of the Elliott signing. “No, you see a kid like that… Actually James Finch told me, Have you seen Chase Elliott drive?And I said, No. He said, Man, he’s whipping all these guys on dirt.
“So I started getting some videos, and then I called Bill, and they came down and we talked.
“I just watched him in those late models and then actually saw one of the races he was racing Kyle Busch. Just the way Bill raised him and what a polished young guy he was and had a lot of talent, I thought, man, he’s just 14 years old so sure want to take a chance if we can.
“You’ve got to find a guy like that early. And again, I think it was a combination of skill, pedigree and just a sharp young man.”
Elliott, has the pedigree to be a multi time champion now but he gave way to this year’s title to his new teammate.
Rick Hendrick didn’t have to sign Larson. He could have went in any other direction. With Johnson retiring, that seat was coveted. Plus, his team was back out of a longer than normal rebuild for them and on the cusp of being that storied organization again.
Everyone wanted this ride. Instead, Hendrick gave Larson a lifeline.
Larson, was fired from CGR as Chevrolet and all the sponsors distanced themselves from him. His NASCAR future was in limbo. If he wanted to race during a pandemic, it was going to be for smaller dirt teams across the country. The luxurious NASCAR life, well it was gone and there was doubt whether it would ever come back.
So, how in the world did six months later he end up in that Hendrick seat? Especially in a world of so much social unjust. How did he turn all this around into a Cup Series championship in a span of 20 months?
“The thing that impressed me so much about Kyle (Larson) was his heart and the things he was doing above and beyond what he was asked to do,” Hendrick said last year of this signing. “I had to get comfortable with his heart and that he was really sincere. He was not afraid to tell everyone that it was a terrible thing, ‘sorry I did it. I’m going to make it right.”
Hendrick, reached out to Larson after the comments as a friend. See, Hendrick supplied engines for CGR and Larson was a driver there. They knew well of each other.
They didn’t talk racing initially though. Hendrick reaching out to Larson last spring was to just be a moral support to him. He knew who Larson was and felt like when all the world was doing was bashing him, that Larson would need a friend.
It eventually developed into a something bigger as Larson was doing his best to rebuild his reputation off the track and keep winning on dirt tracks in the process. He was dominating on dirt and when he wasn’t racing a Midget or Sprint Car, he was traveling across the country taking diversity courses and learning about the African American culture.
NASCAR eventually reinstated him. He paid his dues and admitted his faults and showed that he’s deserving of a second chance in the sport. Hendrick, still had a ride available. Larson, was the best option.
“I definitely think there’s probably a lot of people out there that have concern about me,” Larson said. “It’s not something that happens overnight. I think it’s something that takes time. I think people as they get to spend more time around me or get to see what I’m doing off the racetrack, outside the race car and get to really learn who I am. I think that’s when the forgiveness will be there and people will have a more open mind to forgive me.
“I know that takes time.” CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 30: NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Rick Hendrick hugs Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Metro Tech Chevrolet, celebrating Hendrick Motorsports’ 269th Cup Series win, the most in NASCAR after Larson won the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 30, 2021 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
To show just how much Hendrick believed in Larson, not only did he sign him, he signed him without a sponsor. In a day and age where it cost millions upon millions to run just one team, Hendrick was willing to do it out of his own pocket.
Larson, started off driving an unsponsored No. 5 Chevrolet for HMS.
“If I presented his case to any sponsor, I would spend a lot of time explaining to them what he did and owning up to the mistake he made and the different person he is,” Hendrick said. I know that’s not going to be easy.”
Larson quickly put last year in the rear view mirror. He had a top 10 in the Daytona 500. He won his fourth start with the team. It led to more success which was a five win regular season including a 26 race championship. After 10 playoff races, he won four more times and is a Cup champion.
That’s two in-a-row for Hendrick with drivers he took chances on. How many more are coming? Johnson and Gordon combined to win 11 titles and 177 races. Is this now Elliott and Larson’s time to shine?
Elliott’s won 13 races, seven of which the last two races. Three of those seven came in the final five weeks of last year, all coming in cutoff races.
“Well, you know, he’s a young guy,” Hendrick said of Elliott. “I think he’s going to win a lot of them. Seven is a big number, but that’s something to shoot at.
“Chase has shown so much maturity and everything by just winning these races and now the championship at 24 years old. I think he’s got a lot left in his tank.”
Larson, won nine times this past season alone. He had six wins, 56 top fives and 3,213 laps led in 223 prior starts before joining HMS. In 36 races this season, he had nine wins, 19 top fives and 2,267 laps led.
This could be the next big duo and like the Gordon-Johnson years, Larson-Elliott could be the next pairing to usher in NASCAR’s future. This could be that changing of the guard moment in NASCAR with William Byron and Alex Bowman improving year after year now.
The 2021 season was extra special with what the Hendrick Motorsports organization has been able accomplish. They earned 17 NASCAR Cup Series wins in 2021; Hendrick Motorsports’ second-most in a single season and third-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972-Present). 2021 was the organization’s 36th straight season with a victory; longest-ever streak by a team in the series and its 37th season overall with a win; the most-ever by a team in the series. Plus, Hendrick Motorsports swept first and second in seven races last season; tied for the second-most all-time and most by a team in NASCAR’s Modern Era. They also became one of two teams in Cup Series history to finish 1-2 in four straight races (between Dover and Sonoma). And to top all of that, the organization became the all-time wins leader in the NASCAR Cup Series with 279 total Cup wins – lead all other teams by 11 victories. Kyle Larson’s win in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway broke the all-time record previously held by Petty Enterprises (268 wins).
The Hendrick Motorsport’s foursome of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman also became the only team in NASCAR’s Modern Era to win six straight races (between Dover and Pocono) and the only team in Cup history to have all four Cup cars entered in a race sweep the top-four finishes positions (Dover). They also became the first team in history with four winners under age 30 in a single season.
“Absolutely,” Hendrick said on if he thinks the organization is back where it needs to be in terms of dominance. “I mean, when you have a Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte, you won four championships in a row, you won a ton of races, then you kind of go through a rebuilding year, you don’t Jeff or Jimmie or Dale, and you’ve got Alex Bowman and William Byron and Chase Elliott.
“You watch Larson. He say, Hey, he’s got a tremendous amount of talent. Can he be a team player? Can he come in an organization and have an impact, really help the other guys? The answer to all those is yes.
“I’ve been amazed with William Byron, his year. You work at where he was, if he had gotten in the Roval, he looked like he was going to win that race. He could have been a player in the championship.
“Alex won four races. Chase is going for the back-to-back championship. When you have everybody working together, when you have the crew chiefs not trying to hide things but legitimately wanting to help each other and make all the cars better. Communication between the drivers where you don’t have a driver that’s upset with the other driver or jealous, just building a wall between them.
“Again, it’s the best we’ve ever had when you look at four crew chiefs and four drivers. We had Jimmie Johnson that won seven, won five in a row. The rest of the organization was running at that par.
“This has been a phenomenal year for us.”
They led the fifth-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972)-Present); but set a new Hendrick Motorsports team record that stood for 12 years (4,017 in 2009). Junior Johnson and Associates holds the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era organization record for the most laps led in a single season with 4,296.
Hendrick Motorsports 2021 dominance doesn’t end there, they also posted 33 finishes inside the top two; most in the Modern Era (since 1972), scored 83 top-10 finishes; the team’s second-most (84 in 2007, 82 in 2012), posted 55 top-five finishes; the team’s second-most (57 in 2007) and won 28 stages; had only won 33 prior to 2021.
Since the inception of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2004, the 2021 is the first time Hendrick Motorsports has placed two drivers in the Championship 4 Round (Elliott, Larson). Impressively, Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one Playoff race in each of the 17 Playoff seasons (since 2004) for a combined 53 postseason wins, most all-time.
Does this continue over with a new car?
That’s hard to be known since there’s a new car this season and no one really knows what to expect. That’s led to more questions than answers in NASCAR.
Can Ford close the gap to the Chevrolet and Toyota camps again? By virtue of that, can Stewart-Haas Racing rebound after some down years? Can Team Penske improve after a somewhat down year? Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano each won just one race last year and both were in spring races at that. Keselowski is now gone to Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing. Can he help move them forward? Can Ryan Blaney continue his growth after a breakout year a year ago. That was the first time he’s won multiple times in a season. Can he do so again and finally make it to the Championship 4?
Speaking of the final round, does Denny Hamlin make it to a fourth straight Championship 4 and finally win a title? Can his teammate Kyle Busch get back after a two year absence of missing out on it? Does Martin Truex Jr. continue his success with James Small? Does Christopher Bell improve from Year 2 to Year 3 like he did from Year 1 to Year 2?
Team Penske now has 31 year old Logano a soon to be 28 year old Blaney and 23 year old Cindric locked in for the future. They also signed 21 year old Burton with the Wood Brothers and have found the youth wave. They’re here now too.
SHR is halfway there. They’ll have 27 year old Chase Briscoe and soon to be 24 year old Cole Custer in their lineup for 2022. But so will soon to be 46 year old Kevin Harvick and 37 year old who will be 38 next March, Aric Almirola. Briscoe and Custer have combined to score one Cup win with Harvick and Almirola combining to win just one race between them last year too.
A few years ago, SHR had all four drivers in the Round of 8. Three years later, they had none. What’s their future? Harvick only has a few years left then what?
Is Riley Herbst (22) their guy? Is it Hailie Deegan? Who is going to take the leadership role with SHR over once Harvick’s gone and what’s their surrounding cast going to look like?
Similar situation for JGR. Toyota has a different business model and has a plethora drivers of waiting in the wings. But, while their drivers at JGR are operating in their prime the last several years, they’ve also lost a lot of talent to other teams too.
JGR is full again. Kyle Busch (36) isn’t going anywhere. 41-year olds Denny Hamlin and already 41 year old Martin Truex Jr. aren’t either. Why would they? Why would JGR or Toyota want to push them out? All three have contracts in place for the team past this season and I’d expect them to be back not only in 2022 but 2023 as well. So would Christopher Bell. He’s shown to be their future and is now 28.
Bubba Wallace will be back with 23XI and he’s only 27. Kurt Busch (43) is in the second car. When Kurt, Truex and Hamlin all retire, Kyle isn’t going to be long after. That leaves Bell and whom?
If they want to avoid that dreaded decline in stats, you have to have a plan now.
Nothing is guaranteed which is why you can’t just hand HMS the trophy for Phoenix now.
HMS and JGR are bar none the top teams in the sport right now but 2020 was JGR and Penske. JGR is the only constant but they didn’t win the title in either season.
Who does now?