Once upon a time, Hendrick Motorsports was an unstoppable force in NASCAR Cup Series racing. It’s the home of Jimmie Johnson, whose seven championships have tied a series record; Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s Most Popular Driver and its biggest financial draw; and Chase Elliott, perhaps the most popular name of the next generation. Chase, son of Million Dollar Bill Elliott (a NASCAR Hall of Famer), has both the name and the talent to put together a long career in the sport.
But HMS, despite being the defending NASCAR champs, suffered through 2017 a shell of their former selves. After both Elliott and Johnson wrecked in practice for Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, they now face the possibility of having all three of their playoff-eligible teams (add Kasey Kahne) on the elimination bubble in the Round of 16. Even if only Johnson advances, it would be a scenario virtually unthinkable a short time ago for an organization holding a NASCAR-record 12 Cup championships and 249 victories.
But cracks in the armor, evident even a year ago during Johnson’s title run, have quadrupled in size. Two years ago, Earnhardt by himself collected 16 top-5 performances in 36 starts. In 2017? So far, the quartet of HMS cars has come up with just 14 among them all (108 starts).
Even Johnson, the best positioned of all the HMS drivers based on past history, has only three top-5 results. All of them are wins, putting him in solid playoff position to start, but he hasn’t run better than eighth since winning Dover on June 4. The defending series champ is easily on track for the worst season of his career in several categories, from laps led (188) to those top 5s to even average start (17.3).
It’s those qualifying struggles that have handicapped HMS in a year where track position means so much. Sure, Johnson won some races after starting from the rear this season, but those opportunities to battle back have been few and far between. Take Chicagoland, a race that had only four cautions over 267 laps. There was little time for anyone to push forward to the front if you made a mistake or simply started the race off the pace. (See Kyle Busch, whose loose wheel midrace cost him a shot at the win). The competitiveness of the NASCAR playoffs provide few opportunities to turn bad Fridays into Sunday successes.
Then there’s Elliott, Sunday’s runner-up finisher turned the first 2017 playoff cheater. Video of the team messing illegally with the rear spoiler turned into an L1 penalty this week, causing the suspension of crew chief Alan Gustafson for Sunday’s race at NHMS. Elliott still remains above the cut line but there’s no doubt both his speed and reputation have taken a hit. While still well positioned to be the sport’s next star he’s already lost out to rival Ryan Blaney on who will make it to Victory Lane first. What will critics say if Blaney advances with a single-car team while Elliott falls short?
Certainly, Sunday along with Dover next weekend mean quite a bit for several drivers hoping to survive and advance. But for HMS, perhaps the key word is “salvage.” With Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing running circles around the competition, Earnhardt retiring and Kahne leaving, HMS must look at “salvaging” their reputation as the sport’s top team before that label starts getting used in the past tense.
ISM Connect 300
Time: Sunday, Sept. 24 at 2 p.m. ET
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon, N.H.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Toyota
Martin Truex Jr. was at it again at Chicagoland, battling back from a pit road penalty to dominate the closing circuits of the 400-mile playoff opener. Leading 77 laps, the No. 78 Toyota clinched a spot in the second round and looks poised to march on to Homestead with minimal resistance.
Behind him, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth all flashed the speed that could land them in the final four as well. While Busch ran into problems, his 15th-place result kept the team well above the cut line. A race-high 85 laps up front made others aware the No. 18 has the speed on intermediates to cause problems at Charlotte, Kansas, and Texas up ahead.
Who’s at the Back: Erik Jones
This freshman has dazzled onlookers with a late-summer playoff push that came just short. But a rare off day, wrecking en route to 33rd at Chicagoland Sunday, opened the door a bit for rival Daniel Suarez (12th). The two are separated by just 13 points in their Rookie of the Year race, a close enough battle that Suarez could still close the gap down the stretch.
Kasey Kahne found himself a 2018 ride this week after being released from his long-term contract by Hendrick Motorsports earlier this summer. He’ll slide into the No. 95 at Leavine Family Racing currently being run by Michael McDowell. Owner Bob Leavine claims Kahne should help in attracting sponsorship for the single-car effort that’s overachieved this season with several quality top-20 efforts, including a fourth at Daytona in July.
Chase Elliott, as described above, got hit with a 15-point penalty after his Chicagoland spoiler incident. Crew chief Alan Gustafson was suspended for Sunday along with car chief Joshua Kirk; Gustafson was fined $25,000. The team itself loses 15 owner points while Elliott was docked 15 driver points for the infraction.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Points separating Ryan Newman, last of the 16 title contenders, from 12th-place Austin Dillon for a spot in the next round of the NASCAR playoffs.
Average finish in the last 10 races for Kevin Harvick, Harvick, third at Chicagoland, looks like he’s battling for “best of the rest” with Kyle Larson outside of the Toyota quartet.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
You hate to just throw Martin Truex Jr. in this spot every week but I think New Hampshire is a “must start” for the No. 78. Truex is motivated after the way NASCAR officials blew what would have been a Richmond victory for him two weeks ago. He followed that up with a win at Chicagoland and now comes north to a place where he led 137 laps from the pole in July. (Truex wound up third). This Furniture Row Racing team is in a zone right now and I don’t think they’re going to be stopped this weekend, especially put in a position where they have nothing to lose.
How about Matt Kenseth as a backup if Truex can’t be used? He was second in this race last fall, ran fourth in July and has three wins at NHMS since moving over to Joe Gibbs Racing at the start of the 2013 season.
After a few years of rough performances, Clint Bowyer fought back in July at New Hampshire with a seventh-place effort. Trying to lead the “best of the rest” effort of the non-playoff drivers, he’s battling with Joey Logano for 17th in the standings and will benefit from the strong Stewart-Haas Racing setups of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Don’t be afraid to use him.
Another guy who ran strong in July? Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The Roush Fenway Racing driver, making his first postseason appearance, has his back against the wall after running 25th at Chicagoland. Following a 14th in the July race at NHMS, his average finish at the track improved to a middling 20.4 and it gave him three top-15 results in the last four races there. I think he’ll be on his game come Sunday.
This one is way outside the box. But Landon Cassill, who was 20th at Chicagoland, has run better with Front Row Motorsports as of late. A 23rd-place showing in the July race at New Hampshire, he has three top-30 finishes (all with underfunded equipment) at the track, all with FRM. Add in a 20th place at Chicagoland, one of his best runs all season, and Cassill adds up to a great dark horse pick if you need a top-20 guy to fill out your roster.
Also, look at Danica Patrick. She was 13th in July and continues to run well as of late in her audition for a potential new ride elsewhere in 2018.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. should have the edge for virtually every race, every week going forward. He was sitting at 7/2 odds with Kyle Busch close behind at 5/1.
What I Think
Matt Kenseth has been quietly building speed at his No. 20 Toyota for the last few months. What better way for him to advance to the second round of the playoffs than by earning his first win of the season?
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of NASCAR.com)