One race shouldn’t cause panic in a NASCAR organization. But when Hendrick Motorsports left Atlanta two weeks ago with its four drivers finishing from 15th to 24th, it certainly raised eyebrows from those both inside and outside the Rick Hendrick operation.
“Boss man is not going to put up with that,” said driver Alex Bowman. “Mr. H wants to go win races, and we have a lot of work to do.”
The work appeared to pay off Sunday in Las Vegas, where the team felt good about its performance as the average finish of the four drivers went from 19th to 14th.
Chase Elliott was the only Hendrick driver to finish in the top-10 at Las Vegas, and that average organizational finish still doesn’t scream strength as the NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Phoenix area to compete on the 1-mile ISM Raceway this weekend (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).
“This is a war and not a battle,” Elliott said. “So we’ve got to think about getting better for 38 weeks. We’ve got 35 left. We better keep pushing and hopefully take another chunk.”
Is it time to panic? Hendrick has found itself in periodic funks since Jimmie Johnson won his seventh title in 2016.
“You can’t freak out over it,” Elliott said. “It is what it is. … If we are performing to the best of our ability, that’s all you can ask for.”
HMS could reason the last two years of struggles with 2017 as just a down year and 2018 as the first season with the Camaro body. But this year with a new aero package designed to tighten the field, an Atlanta day where Bowman finished 16th, William Byron 17th, Elliott 19th and Johnson 24th appeared as one of the most deflating Hendrick performances over the last couple years.
“The very first call I received postrace on Sunday after Atlanta was from Jimmie, wanting to get together Monday, wanting to know where we go next and wanting to know what our next step was,” HMS Vice President of Competition Jeff Andrews said.
Johnson’s average finish the last two years of 16.8 and 16.7 ranks as the worst of his career. At Las Vegas, the seven-time Cup champion worked his way into the top-10 after the second stage and then fell to 19th.
“We definitely had more speed,” Johnson said. “I am really puzzled why we fell apart at the end. That was pretty frustrating. We were more competitive, but we still have a ways to go.”
Andrews said with the cars having decreased horsepower and increased downforce, the team focused on building on the increase in downforce to gain an advantage over other teams. It will shift some of that focus, which should give the organization a sense of direction that should help ease concerns.
“HMS moved in the direction of taking something with quite a bit of downforce in it. I think that showed in our qualifying and hoping it would pay dividends for us in the race,” Andrews said.
“It did. It just didn’t pan out to be an advantage that we had hoped for. We made some big changes towards Las Vegas.”
Beyond changing drivers from Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne to Elliott, Bowman and Byron from 2016-2018, the organization has made a variety of personnel moves over the last few years. Johnson’s longtime crew chief Chad Knaus moved to work with Byron this season while Kevin Meendering took over the Johnson car after a successful stint at JR Motorsports.
Doug Duchardt, who oversaw the racing operations, left amid the struggles in 2017 and now works at Ganassi. Hendrick brought in Chevrolet’s Cup program manager Alba Colon prior to last season to oversee its computer simulation and data acquisition systems. It has moved championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb off the pit box once again to focus on key projects of aero and chassis development, an area where Hendrick seemed to struggle.
Any suggestion that all the change has resulted in growing pains elicits a response of confidence with the people in their current roles.
With their issues at the first two intermediate-track races, if Hendrick could run well this weekend in the TicketGuardian 500 at Phoenix — typically a strong track for Hendrick drivers — that could go a long way in knowing they can focus their efforts on improving on intermediate tracks.
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Andrews said the organization “has to learn faster than our competition” as its aerodynamic group works double shifts in the wind tunnel twice a week — results received Tuesday will go on the cars for next week at Auto Club Speedway in California — and the engine department has enhancements scheduled to roll out soon.
“There’s so much hunger inside our company,” said Johnson, riding a career-worst 62-race winless streak. “Unfortunately, we’re not up there dominating. But we’ll get there.”