It turns out, winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship last season was just the tip of the iceberg for Hendrick Motorsports.
While it’s debatable Hendrick was the best organization a year ago when Chase Elliott got hot in the second half of the playoffs to earn his first championship, it was a return to the top of the mountain for Hendrick, who had last celebrated a title in 2016 with Jimmie Johnson. Even then, though, there were signs the company was going through some lean years, and Elliott’s championship came after a combined seven wins from three of its four drivers.
It should come as no surprise then that team owner Rick Hendrick is “extremely happy and humbled” by the overall success of his four teams this season.
Two Hendrick drivers, Kyle Larson and Elliott, will run for the championship Sunday (2 p.m. ET, NBC) at Phoenix Raceway. All four drivers have won races for a total of 16 on the year. All four made the playoffs.
And so, 2020 championship aside, the 2021 season has been more of an indication Hendrick Motorsports is back where it should be in regards to performance.
“Absolutely,” said Hendrick. “When you have a Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte, and you won four championships in a row, and you won a ton of races, then you go through a rebuilding year. You don’t have Jeff or Jimmie [Johnson] or Dale [Earnhardt Jr.], and you’ve got Alex Bowman and William Byron and Chase Elliott.
“Then you watch Larson and 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.”
While Elliott might be the reigning series champion, Larson carries the banner for Hendrick going into Phoenix. Larson and the No. 5 team have been the dominant ones with nine wins and the regular-season championship, and he was long ago declared the favorite the championship.
Larson is in his first year with the Hendrick organization and crew chief Cliff Daniels. And Daniels is only in his second full year as a Cup Series crew chief.
“I’ve been amazed with William Byron this year,” Hendrick continued. “If he had gotten (through) 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. And communication between the drivers where you don’t have a driver that’s upset with the other driver or jealous or 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 (championships) and won five in a row, but the rest of the organization wasn’t running at that par. So, this has been a phenomenal year for us.”
Larson and Daniels aren’t the only new driver and crew chief pairing at Hendrick. Byron and Rudy Fugle came out of the box strong with their first win together in the third race of the year and have had many other near-misses.
Hendrick drivers have combined for 81 top-10 finishes, and 3,918 laps led. The wins have come on every type of track except for a superspeedway. It hasn’t been uncommon to hear the competition talk about how fast the Hendrick Chevrolets are and how everyone else is playing catch up.
When previewing the Hendrick versus Joe Gibbs Racing championship matchup, Wally Brown, the Gibbs competition director, not only said Hendrick has been so much faster, but they’re the favorites. Perhaps not the case a year ago, but now certainly the standard, once again, at Hendrick Motorsports.
“I think ‘back’ for us is consistency and consistently being at the front on a weekly basis, winning races, competing for championships,” said competition director Jeff Andrews. “Certainly, if we can go out there this weekend and win a second consecutive championship for Mr. Hendrick and our organization, I don’t know that we like to use the word ‘back’ around here because I don’t see us resting on that. Certainly, by our standards, the consistency in winning, the consistency of performing at a high level is something that we would consider back where we need to be, back where we’re expected, where Mr. Hendrick expects us to be as a company.”