Hendrick Motorsports reached its low point in July of 2020. When the month wrapped up after the race at Kansas Speedway, only one Hendrick driver – Chase Elliott – sat inside the top 10 in points. Company-wide, it was a struggle to find some consistency as the four drivers combined for just two top-10 finishes and 72 laps led across in the four races held that month.
“We dug pretty deep at that point in time and kind of set a focus on late summer, early fall to get ourselves in position, to get our cars through rounds and playoffs,” reflected Jeff Andrews, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, after Alex Bowman won at Richmond Raceway.
“We hit on some things there, the vehicle side, vehicle and powertrain side; all the departments went to work pretty hard in different areas. You started to see that pay off for us some late last season, culminating in a championship for us. We were sort of scratching the surface on some really good things late last season.”
William Byron scored his first career win in the playoff-setting race at Daytona in August. Alex Bowman advanced into the Round of 8 for the first time, and Elliott won the championship after winning three of the final five races. Both Elliott and Bowman finished in the top six in the championship standings.
The push in those areas continued over the off-season. There were also other notable changes made: Kyle Larson replaced Jimmie Johnson, and Rudy Fugle became the crew chief for William Byron. Through the first nine races of 2021, the fruits of their labor have continued to pay off.
Three of the four Hendrick drivers have won races and look set to be a part of the playoff field. Byron and Fugle have been quietly going about their business – perhaps overlooked – at fourth in points. The duo is the highest-sitting Hendrick team in the standings with the most top-10 finishes (seven).
Bowman’s win was a bright spot for he and crew chief Greg Ives. The No. 48 team has been all over the board with results, although they’ve shown speed. Take Martinsville, for example, where Bowman ran near the front all afternoon only to be involved in the big crash on the backstretch.
Larson is sixth in points and has been in contention for multiple race wins with 379 laps led. Back from sitting out the majority of the ’20 season because of his firing from Ganassi and suspension from the sport, Larson has come out swinging and and is fully embracing his second opportunity.
And yes, it’s worth noting once more that Hendrick and Richard Childress are now working together on an engine program. Andrews admits it has made “a huge difference” for both organizations.
“There has been nothing but positives that have come out of that on all fronts,” Andrews said. “Of course, ultimately you hope those kind of things have some quick performance advantages for both companies. Since we started taking a look at that mid-summer last year, been really proud of both groups. Jim Wall, who runs our engine program, and Richie Gilmore, who runs the ECR engine program, both of those guys have locked arms.
“We’re working really good together, working on some things continuing on for this year. A little bit different rule set for us this year with some design freezes on some different parts and pieces. Nonetheless, we’re focused on some things for this year that we can make some changes on, then, of course, we’ve got to focus on the Next Gen car in 2022.
“We’ve been really, really pleased with the relationship. Really it’s been everything that we hoped for and exceeded the expectations that we hoped for. Just the way the two programs have come together and been able to realize some efficiencies and also been able to realize some real gains in horsepower as well. We’re really, really pleased with the way that’s been working.”
Elliott is the lone Hendrick driver without a win this season, but the No. 9 team has always shown up strong later in the year. Just twice (Talladega April 2019; Charlotte May 2020) has Elliott won before the 22nd race of the season.
“As far as the 9 team, Alan, Chase, we have the utmost confidence in those two guys, in that team,” Andrews said. “Really all the same players that were on that team last year. You go through these spells where they’ve had good runs. Look at last week (at Martinsville), they had a really good car last week, came up a little bit short.
“It’s not been that the performance hasn’t been there. I think more we’re looking for a little bit of consistency. Nobody is going to work harder at it than Alan Gustafson and that team.
“We still have a lot of racing to do here, a lot of good tracks coming up. We are excited to go to Talladega next week. It’s been a good track for them. Then back to some of the mile-and-a-half stuff. We’re looking forward to that, as well.”
After nine races last year, Hendrick Motorsports drivers had combined for 816 laps led with two drivers already notching race wins. This year, the drivers have combined to lead 601 laps, with three of the four in victory lane but all four showing weekly potential.
“We took a hard look at ourselves,” said Andrews. “We owed Mr. Hendrick, we owed our sponsors and Chevrolet, to be better than we were. We took a hard look at ourselves. It was not acceptable. The whole company banded together, went to work, (and this is) really just a continuation of what we had going on in late 2020.”