Hendrick Motorsports back on top
Hendrick Motorsports is no stranger to the success of the NASCAR Cup Series. During the careers of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, there were several seasons where the 24th or 48th team championships seemed virtually automatic.
But since Johnson’s final title in 2016, Hendrick had lost his advantage over the rest of the field. Faced with a lineup of aging drivers, a redesigned Chevrolet car and new sets of rules, HMS had to do a rebuild.
It was then, however. In 2021, Hendrick reigned supreme again.
After some positive results at the end of the 2020 season, culminating in a championship for Chase Elliott, HMS has surpassed its competition to a degree not seen since the glory days of Gordon and Johnson.
The top honors for Hendrick went to the team’s newest driver, Kyle Larson. In addition to winning the 2021 Cup title, Larson had 10 wins plus the All-Star Race.
But what made Hendrick particularly dangerous in 2021 was the strength of his four teams. Larson and Elliott may have been the ones running for the championship last month, but Alex Bowman and William Byron have also enjoyed their best seasons in the Cup career.
How dominant was Hendrick this year? Larson, Elliott, Bowman and Byron combined to win 17 races. That’s 47.2% of the entire Cup season that went to one organization. Additionally, Larson’s victory in the Coca-Cola 600 saw HMS overtake Petty Enterprises as the most successful team in Cup Series history. It was also one of six straight wins for Hendrick in late spring and early summer.
Then, during the playoffs, HMS closed the season with five more straight wins. In other words, 2021 has been a good year to drive a Hendrick Chevy.
It’s likely that no one was more grateful to have the Hendrick gear at their disposal than Larson. Throughout his tenure with Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson’s story of near misses and struggles to close races has left some wondering if he is really performing at his ceiling or joining a stronger team. consistently would give better results for the California native.
Larson made the most of his new opportunity, reaching heights he had never reached before in the world of stock car racing. On his way to the championship, he won the regular season title, at least one win in each round of the playoffs and two different streaks of three-game winning streak. Larson also led 2,581 laps in 2021, the most laps paced by a Hendrick driver in a single season since Gordon led 2,610 laps in 1995.
Simply put, Larson and his team found a level of speed that no one had an answer for, and it led them to a championship in their first year together. After 2021, there should be no more doubts about Larson’s abilities as a stockcar racer.
Larson’s dominance eclipsed a good championship defense by Elliott and the No.9 team. After scoring two regular season wins, Elliott survived a few tight playoff calls to face Larson, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. in the championship race. Preseason predictions that Elliott would dominate the Cup Series road events did not come true as Larson turned out to be the No.9 team’s biggest obstacle on the road courses.
But Elliott was still in a position to win 15 top five (equal to his 2020 total) and 21 top 10 (one short of 2020). He also reached the final round of the playoffs for the second year in a row and is one of two drivers who have reached at least the third round of the playoffs for five consecutive years.
Of the Cup drivers who are currently under 30, Elliott did the best job making his way through the playoffs, despite feuds with Kevin Harvick. Maybe he and Larson can continue to deliver the 1-2 punch that Hendrick once had with Gordon and Johnson.
As for the rest of Hendrick’s drivers, it’s important to remember where they were a year ago compared to their accomplishments in 2021. Prior to this season, Byron had shown the potential to show up every now and then. . However, he and the No.24 team had not found the ability to run for wins consistently.
The missing piece of the puzzle was a reunification with Byron and Rudy Fugle, his 2016 Camping World Truck Series crew chief. Byron and Fugle quickly won the Cup, securing Hendrick’s first victory of 2021 at Homestead-Miami Speedway .
Byron didn’t win again in 2021, but there’s no doubt he’s had his best season. He got 12 top five after starting the year with a total of nine careers. Perhaps more importantly, Byron has spent most of the regular season in the top five in points. Homestead’s victory wasn’t simply the case of a team finding the right setup for an early-season race before losing relevance. Byron finished in the top 10 for the next 10 races after his victory. He even enjoyed some of his best late-season races of 2021 after being knocked out of the championship. This year has been a big step forward for Byron, a driver who could be on the verge of a breakthrough in 2022.
Bowman had run into issues similar to Byron’s in recent years, although a long playoff streak in 2020 signaled better things could be ahead for the Arizona native. A year later, Bowman tripled his Cup Series winning tally. At the wheel of the No.48, Bowman visited the Winner’s Circle four times in 2021, a great accomplishment for a driver who had never had a multi-winning season before.
What Bowman lacked in consistency he made up for in efficiency. Half of all of his top five have resulted in wins, and he’s led just a combined total of 133 laps in the races he’s won.
Bowman continued to find his way to the victory lane and displayed a certain flair for spectacular victories. His winning moves included snooker on the field on a late restart at Richmond Raceway, diving into the lead on the last corner of the final lap at Pocono Raceway when Larson punctured a tire and knocked Hamlin out of the lead in the final laps at Martinsville Speedway. If it hadn’t been for a tough second round of the playoffs, Bowman would have reached the championship race.
Bowman’s other victory, at Dover International Speedway, marked a special moment for Hendrick. Bowman, Larson, Elliott and Byron got the very first 1-4 for HMS, becoming the third team in Cup history to accomplish the feat. This race, more than any other, summed up why 2021 was so special for Hendrick.
HMS pilots have recorded dominant seasons like Larson from time to time, and in doing so, they have generally far outstripped their teammates. It was often characteristic of Hendrick’s teams to have at least one car that struggles to keep up with the others in any given season.
The 2021 season has been relatively unprecedented for Hendrick as one car has not struggled significantly compared to the others. Bowman may not have had the consistency of his teammates, but he’s won more races than Elliott and Byron combined.
All four drivers had their moments in the sun and made valuable contributions to the revitalization of the team. The sleeping giant that was Hendrick has awoken.
Share this article
Subscribe to the Frontstretch newsletter
A daily email update (Monday to Friday) providing race news, reviews, features and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone.