Back in 2011, when Hendrick Motorsports rolled into Daytona Beach to begin a new NASCAR season, the average age of its stable was 40. Its four drivers – Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Mark Martin – were all veterans of the sport with a combined 193 victories, and Johnson was fresh off his fifth consecutive championship.
Ten years later, when Hendrick Motorsports rolls into Daytona for Speedweeks in February, its four drivers’ average age will be 26. Not only will it be the youngest crop of drivers the organization has had in quite some time (if not ever), but none of those mentioned above will be behind the wheel. Instead, the most experienced driver in terms of his number of Cup Series starts, is 28-year-old Kyle Larson.
Alex Bowman is close behind; William Byron has finally broken in the seat of his Chevrolet.
But make no mistake, the face of the organization is newly crowned champion Chase Elliott. The Georgian turns 25 next week, and, in his short time at the premier level, he has already collected a few trophies inscribed ‘Most Popular Driver’.
Even before he clinched the title at Phoenix Raceway earlier this month, Elliott was being looked at as the next leader at Hendrick Motorsports – whether he wanted the job not. With the Retirement Tour of seven-time champion Johnson now complete, the torch was all but literally passed to Elliott in the Arizona desert when the two found each other on track to exchange high-fives after the checkered flag.
“Chase Elliott won his first championship,” said Johnson of what he’ll remember about his final race. “I’m so happy for that guy. Great friend, great family. I’ve been friends with his mom and dad for a lot of years; I can recall going snowboarding with Bill out in Colorado, and Chase was maybe eight years old, something like that, on skis, super quiet, wouldn’t say much.
“To watch him grow up and to be around him, and to give him some advice from time to time has really been meaningful for me. Today, I think more about him winning a championship than anything – (it) is pretty awesome.”
This is now Elliott’s organization and sport until it isn’t, and considering he’s got the famous last name, fan base, and now success, “isn’t” won’t be anytime soon. NASCAR certainly isn’t going to complain.
And yet, it’s not just Elliott ascending to the throne that gives Hendrick a different look and feel. Chad Knaus has also retired – from climbing atop the pit box. Knaus is now going to oversee all four teams for the organization.
Larson joins the fold in a renumbered 5 Chevrolet. Now carrying the No. 48 banner for Ally is Bowman, who seems to be coming into his own with the organization and the Cup Series. And don’t forget Byron is reuniting with crew chief Rudy Fugle, who is new to the Hendrick family after becoming one of the best of all time in the Camping World Truck Series.
Hall of Fame team owner Rick Hendrick acknowledged after Elliott’s big day, Johnson’s bid goodbye, and Knaus switching gears that there is a new sense of leadership with the group. Naturally, after some lean years for his company, many internal changes from retirements to restructuring the race shop, and now going forward with a younger group of drivers, Hendrick is as optimistic and excited about the future as ever before.
“Alan [Gustafson] is one of our senior guys, probably the most senior crew chief,” said Hendrick. “Chad has done an excellent job, but now he can help all the teams being the competition director. Alan still wants to be a crew chief; he’s got a real horse in Chase. We split those guys up, Jimmie and Chad; but to go to the racetrack in Daytona next year and not see Chad on the box or Jimmie in a car (will be) a big adjustment.
“I went through it with Jeff Gordon; I went through it with Dale; went through it with Terry Labonte and a lot of other drivers along the way. You have to adapt and change. The good news is that Chad is moving up to help the whole organization. He’s not leaving; he’ll be there.
“Jimmie wants to do some things and has a bucket list that he wants to go after, so we’re all happy for him and his family.
“I feel good about our company. We’ve got young crew chiefs, young drivers, and they’re super competitive. I think we’ll be good for years to come.”