Hendrick Motorsports is the number one team in NASCAR. At least for right now.
The organization has won the last two NASCAR Cup Series races with William Byron (Homestead) and Kyle Larson (Las Vegas). It has won four of the last six races dating back to the end of last season, and Chase Elliott is the reigning series champion. Most significantly, Hendrick Motorsports is back to seeing all four of its teams capable of winning races.
“That’s what you want,” Hall of Fame team owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday night after Larson’s victory. “You want an opportunity to win.”
It wasn’t that long ago that questions swirled around the organization. Most of those questions centered around what was wrong, and whether the team’s best days were behind it. Wins became few and far between (like a lean three in 2018), and drivers like Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and most recently, Jimmie Johnson made their exits one after another.
Through the darkness has been the bright spot of Elliott, the only driver to win multiple races over the last three seasons. But even as he did, the entire organization appeared to be a step behind the competition. Here in early March, though, it looks like the Hendrick of old is re-emerging: the one where its teams can show up, dominate, and make everyone else tired of seeing them.
“Certainly, the Hendrick guys have come to play,” said Kyle Busch over the weekend.
In February 2020, Hendrick spoke confidently about his company being back on the upswing. When Elliott made the Championship 4, it was the first time since 2016 a Hendrick team had competed for the title.
Maybe Hendrick wasn’t wrong a year ago when he said those things, but those observations look even better now. Over the last two weeks, his drivers have been the class of the field on the two intermediates, with 261 of 534 laps led. Having speed at those facilities is crucial to season success, since they make up most of the schedule and the postseason.
The competition is rightfully taking notice of the Hendrick contingent. Penske’s Brad Keselowski referenced the down years Chevrolet has had, but also noted the manufacturer’s adjustments to improve the Camaro. Bowtie teams struggled out of the gate in 2018, and it led to noticeable tweaks on the car’s nose, along with other not-so-easily seen component changes.
“I think last year, or maybe the year before last with the body on the car, they got better,” Keselowski said. “Made a big adjustment this year with the engines, probably took a step up. Across the board, they look pretty strong. Those are some significant upgrades, and they’re making the most of them.”
The engine piece Keselowski referenced is that Hendrick and Richard Childress Racing are now working together. Two of the strongest engine builders in the sport have streamlined the process to build one common Chevrolet engine.
We also know that in the last few years, Hendrick has revamped just about everything it can, from its driver lineup to crew chiefs and personnel, and even combined its two shops. All four teams work out of a common area in one building, with engineers and crew chief offices housed closely together.
Oh, and let us not forget another big piece put in place just a few months ago. Chad Knaus’s wizardry is now at work behind the scenes, overseeing and having an influence on all four teams.
“Everybody’s working well together,” Hendrick said. “The crew chiefs, Chad being the competition director, Jeff Andrews. We got a great team that is working really well together. Rudy [Fugle], look at William and how he’s been running.
“I just feel like the chemistry is so good right now. I don’t know if I ever remember it being any better across the board with all four cars. Two cars sometimes, then one car winning them all. But now we’ve got a really good balance. Everybody’s excited. I’m excited.”
Racing is a cyclical sport, and for the longest time, Hendrick was the standard-bearer. Then the grit of the company was tested, and while it’s taken some time to get back to its winning ways, Hendrick does look back and, as the 13-time champion owner felt even last year, sees an operation working better than ever.
The Hendrick campus knows that the hard part isn’t getting to the top but staying there. And with a season as long as NASCAR’s, it won’t be hard to tell if the organization is genuinely back and at the start of its next successful period.