Hendrick Motorsports fighting hard to avoid playoff elimination
Chase Elliott is the defending winner of the Hollywood Casino 400. It remains his only victory on an intermediate track in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
For Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports to salvage their season, Elliott may need to have lightning strike twice.
The equivalent of stock car racing’s New York Yankees is on the verge of a very un-Hendrick-like accomplishment. Elliott, William Byron, and Alex Bowman are on the outside of the playoff cutline looking in heading into Sunday's (Oct. 20) race at the 1.5-mile tri-oval of Kansas Speedway. All of them are at least 18 points behind the last driver in, Joey Logano, meaning they'll almost certainly need a win to advance.
And if not? HMS will go without a driver in the Round of 8 for the first time since the current playoff format was adopted in 2014. It would almost certainly mean they’ll fail to put a driver inside the top 5 in points for a second straight year.
The last time Hendrick encountered that type of back-to-back slump? That was back in 1999 and 2000. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson (who failed to qualify for the playoffs this year) wasn't even a full-time regular in the Cup Series yet. Byron and Elliott were still in preschool.
"This is the toughest round of 12 I've been a part of in my four years," Elliott said Friday. "Really, I think all 12 teams and drivers are pretty good that are left right now. I think we knew coming into this round that it wasn't going to be easy. We knew it was going to be tough to move on. That's where we're at, it's tough. Here we are."
That said, this four-car organization has reasons to be hopeful. Bowman ran second in the Kansas race in May, leading 63 laps. Elliott was fourth in that event and led 45 laps of his own. But both struggled during Friday's practice along with Byron; none of the trio (along with Johnson) cracked the top 10 in either session.
Losing Hendrick from the Round of 8 would leave just one Chevrolet driver left in the playoff field (Kyle Larson from Chip Ganassi Racing). It's a bitter pill to swallow in the second year of the new Camaro chassis, trailing badly in the manufacturer's race after only seven wins in the year's first 31 races. And with limited changes in the 2020 rules package before the expected debut of NASCAR's Gen-7 car in 2021? Relief may not be coming for this group anytime soon.
"You can't lose sleep over the fact that we've tried to do all we can to get to this point," added William Byron Friday. "That's just the situation that we're in and we just have to go do our jobs. That's just how I try to approach it, but it's stressful for sure."
Stressful and surprising if Hendrick fails to clear the bar altogether for the next round of NASCAR's 2019 playoffs.
Hollywood Casino 400
Time: Sunday, Oct. 20 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, KS)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Ryan Blaney
Blaney benefitted from a game of Survivor: Talladega Superspeedway as virtually the entire field was involved in some sort of crash last Sunday. Blaney's No. 12 Ford emerged from the wreckage for his third career win, each of them under bizarre circumstances. He was the benefactor of pit strategy back at Pocono Raceway in 2017, then the third-place driver at Charlotte last fall when Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. crashed in front of him.
But the end result places him in the Round of 8, one of three Team Penske drivers (Brad Keselowski, Logano) likely to advance.
Who's at the Back: Daniel Suarez
Suarez just missed out on the 16-driver playoffs, falling short by one position to teammate Clint Bowyer. Since then, Bowyer has surged while Suarez has slumped badly, throwing his long-term future with Stewart-Haas Racing into question. He's got two finishes of 30th or worse in the last three races, including a bad wreck at Talladega last weekend, and has fallen behind Johnson in the 17th-place battle for "Best of The Rest" in points.
Clint Bowyer's future was firmed up this week with a 2020 contract extension to continue driving for Stewart-Haas Racing. Bowyer's won twice in three seasons with the team, making the playoffs in back-to-back years although a winless 2019 left his future a question mark through much of the summer. He's currently 11th in points and could potentially still advance to the Round of 8 under the right circumstances.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will move to JTG-Daugherty Racing to drive for their Chevrolet Cup team in 2020. Stenhouse replaces Chris Buescher, who is moving to Roush Fenway Racing, in what effectively becomes a ride swap between the two drivers. It'll be the first Cup ride outside of RFR for Stenhouse, driver of the No. 17 Ford since the start of the 2013 season. He has two wins and just one playoff appearance in seven years of Cup competition.
NASCAR and ISC completed their merger this week. The deal puts together both the business arm of the sport and several of its tracks as consolidation continues into one large private company. Could a buyout of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and its dozen Cup dates on the schedule be next on the horizon?
NASCAR by the Numbers
Finish for Michael McDowell at Talladega last Sunday, tied for his best of the year. Two top-5 runs for the underdog driver is a new season-high for him in the Cup Series.
Races since Kyle Busch last visited Victory Lane in the Cup Series. That's typically not a long streak for a driver but considering Busch's 13 wins combined in Cup, Xfinity, and Gander Outdoors Truck series competition this year? It's a bit unusual.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kansas Speedway has typically been Kevin Harvick's playground as of late. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver just needs to learn how to close the deal at this facility. Don't be fooled by runs of 12th and 13th in his last two starts; he could easily have won both those races, leading a total of 180 laps between them. A pit road speeding penalty and a suspected flat tire, respectively, killed his chances for victory lane in those events. They say bad news typically comes in threes but I feel like you'll be able to trust him this time around.
A solid alternative might be Team Penske's Brad Keselowski. The May winner has five straight top-15 finishes here, including this win, and is looking to re-establish momentum entering the Round of 8.
Clint Bowyer doesn't have the greatest history at his hometown track. But a fifth-place finish back in the spring was his best run here in six years; borrowing setup and practice notes from teammate Harvick can only help. Sprinkle in the pressure of trying to make the next round, add the boost of a contract extension and that equals a potential surprise winning performance here.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. isn't in the playoffs. He isn't even with this Roush Fenway Racing team next season. But what he does have is three top-11 finishes in the last five Kansas races, paired with 22 laps led. There are plenty of options in this range but Stenhouse might offer a lower price than the rest, an under-the-radar pick for maximum value in daily fantasy.
Rookie Daniel Hemric was 18th in his first Kansas Cup start but ran strong in Friday's practice sessions. Hemric is auditioning hard for a 2020 spot in this division and recently lost out on an opportunity with JTG-Daugherty Racing, increasing his sense of urgency. A top-10 run is not out of the question here as the clock keeps ticking.
Another rookie, Matt Tifft, has cleaned up his act as of late, posting two top-20 finishes in his last four starts. He was 21st at Kansas back in May, a reasonable result with middling Front Row Motorsports and will be another good max-value pick at a lower price.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick lead the way with 9/2 odds at Kansas, followed by Kyle Busch at 5/1.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. leads the best of the longshots at 100/1.
What I Think
I'm going to stick with Kevin Harvick in this space for a second straight week. If there's anyone from the Hendrick stable that breaks through (and I think it's unlikely) I'd go with Alex Bowman.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)